If you've been wanting to learn more about drones - the uses, value and best practices of drone work, now is your chance as LenovoPRO Featured Member and drone aficionado Chris Niver and LenovoPRO Community Manager Beth Knittel dive deep to discuss all things drones.
By watching the on-demand webinar below, you can expect to walk away learning more about:
- Recreational & professional uses of drones
- Hobby to side hustle with drones
- Ways to incorporate drone work to beneficial ends
- Best practices & guidelines for drone operators
As the IT Director for the City of Conover, North Carolina, Chris is no stranger to the changing world of tech. When his work enabled him to dabble in UAVs, he was hooked, got his FAA License and has been flying since 2018. Chris now uses UAVs to benefit his current work and as a photography and filming side-hustle in the form of Uplifting Imagery.
Watch the on-demand version of the webinar, jump to key sections with timestamps or keep scrolling to catch the full write-up below!
Discussing Drones: Uses & Best Practices Featuring Chris Niver, previously live
- 0:00 - Welcome
- 0:45 - Chris Introduction
- 2:03 - Getting involved with UAVs
- 3:00 - UAV uses
- 4:10 - History and inspiration
- 6:22 - Recreation vs. Commercial License
- 7:03 - Representing the UAV community
- 10:22 - Insurance
- 13:07 - Side hustle & aerial photography
- 17:48 - Part 107 FAA Certification
- 20:34 - Studying for certification
- 26:29 - Building skill in the air
- 31:50 - Getting into UAV opportunities
- 35:06 - Wildlife & the environment
- 38:15 - Wrapping up
- 39:16 - Lenovo Tab M8 viewer
Context & Experience
Let's start off with the term "drone." It can have a negative connotation and folks in the industry are starting to call it UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system) more. UAS includes the drone itself, the device that flies, the controllers, things like that. People often associate drones with unmanned military machines that contain explosives and cause destruction, but that's not what UAV flyers do.
Chris got involved with flying UAVs some years ago in a previous role of Planning Director with the City of Conover. He would go to the local airport, rent a plane, then hang out the window taking aerial shots of the city for future development, work-in-progress photos of current development projects and utilize them for storyboard planning. While aerial photography via rented plane was necessary for city planning (and fun), it was also expensive. So when UAVs came out, Chris saw a natural synergy from a practical, money-saving and personal enjoyment perspective. He soon talked his boss into purchasing one for the city.
Purchasing the UAV for the city saved a lot of money. Chris obtained his Part 107 FAA Certification so as to become a Licensed Commercial Pilot.
It's an incredibly useful tool and also a fun tool. It's fun to fly. There are many ways to use this in a business capacity or consider generating income from your skill UAV flying.
Inspiration: UAVs & Photography
So when it comes to Chris's UAV work, photography and filming are really where his inspiration and excitement is at.
Chris had always had a passion for photography as a hobby. While in college, Chris managed a dark room in the student center. This was back in the 90s (way before digital) when you could go to Sam's club and get 20 photos on a print roll for $2.00. Once Chris got into black and white photography, he really enjoyed the creativity with it. From exposures in a dark room to holding classes and teaching others how to do that.
With the dawn of digital, you can take a 1,000 photos and pick the best one. It used to be 24 photos in a roll and you didn't want to waste a single one. The digital age really broadened what you could do with photography, not to mention digital artwork and filters on photos, editing, post-shot production. You can really do so much with photography. That continued evolution and versatility is what has kept Chris interested in photography.
Photo Credit: Chris Niver, Uplifting Imagery
Technical & Recreational Uses
Having and operating a UAV is an incredible opportunity. There is so much you can do with UAVs from a technical perspective:
- Land surveying
- Cut-fill calculations on a job site
- 3D modeling
- & much more
The use of a thermal imaging camera can really help if someone is lost. With FLIR (Thermal Imaging Infrared Cameras), you can detect heat signaling to find people. Highway patrol has started using UAVs for crash re-creation. They can launch their UAVs in the air, measure skid marks and other key crash site details digitally then take it back for analysis.
Over the last 4 years, Chris has personally used the UAVs in city government for:
- Economic development by observing vacant property to better market it
- City development: progress updates from facilities built from above
- Promotional opportunities for local businesses, events, marketing and more
- Survey & construction updates and projects
- Real estate for residential and commercial use
With the City of Conover, the Fire Department is exploring using UAVs with the FLIR camera attached so as to detect and identify individuals in distress or need of help.
Photo Credit: Chris Niver, Uplifting Imagery
From a recreational perspective, the opportunities are endless! From filming your kid's sporting events, enjoying creative scavenger games (family drone flying!), exploring your land from above, backyard races and even starting your own nature filming YouTube channel, there is a lot you can do.
Registering your UAV
There are rules to abide by as both a recreational and commercial flyer. You must register your drone with the Federal Aviation Association (FAA). You receive a small sticker to adhere to your drone and it acts like a license plate. So the FAA knows that Chris has a drone, they know it's his, and if it get's out of control of wreaks into someone's house, or hopefully never hurt someone, it can come back to Chris to take responsibility.
Chris thinks of it like you COULD drive down the highway at 100 miles an hour, until you get caught. And that's sorta the way it is with drones and recreational flying right now. You definitely can't go peeping in people's windows (Peeping Tom Laws) and misusing your drone.
To fly recreationally (which means you don't have to have a permit) you don't have to have that FAA license. However, it can be very restrictive in that it must be for recreational purposes only. For example, say you are out at a state park or somewhere beautiful and you want to take some pictures. The pictures turn out great! Now, if you ever want to sell those pictures, you have to have a commercial license. In Chris's case working with the city, as soon as he started creating promotional business materials from pictures taken with the UAV, the city had to get a commercial license. Remember, if you make a single penny or trade anything for your drone-related work, you MUST have that commercial license.
Representing the UAV Community as a flyer
When people misuse their UAVs or break FAA laws, it reflects poorly on the whole UAV flying community, including professionals. If a flyer is misusing their drone and the public sees conflicting drone behavior, it get's really confusing and unsafe. When unlicensed recreational flyers misuse their drones, they are actually breaking the law and putting others at risk. For passionate, licensed UAV flyers, educating the public that there are some rules is really a daunting but essential task and a constant up-hill battle. The FAA rules and regulations are built with the core concern for the safety and privacy of all, so it's worth spreading the information when possible.
As a recreational (or commercial) flyer, you must register your drone, adhere to operator guidelines and follow a few basic laws:
- Altitude - You can NOT fly over 400 feet in the air. Many drones have this built in so an operator can't physically do that anyway.
- No flying over people
- Visual line of site - You must ALWAYS have your drone within your eye's views. Not with binoculars. Technically, if you were flying your drone behind a building and lost your line of sight, you'd be breaking the law.
There was a big case recently where someone flew over the super bowl and put that footage on YouTube - not the smartest thing (it's like recording yourself robbing a bank). So in this case, the FAA tracked down the flyer and fined him $30,000 and that flyer will never be able to hold a commercial license.
When you get into commercial flying, it is highly recommended that you get insurance.
If you want to pursue a side hustle and are just starting out, or if you have something small like the Mini Mavic, you can get insurance through a companies like SkyWatch (app) or VeriFly. You can have your drone covered by the hour with SkyWatch. So you don't have to, if you fly rarely or do jobs now and then, you can have per event insurance and it'll run you about $10 an hour. And that cost covers you and liability should you crash into a car, damage someone else's property and again, hopefully never, hurt somebody. There are a number of options out there. It's very easy to get it set up on your phone - make an account, log your location and log your flight time.
If you're flying as a side hustle, you can list the cost of insurance for that flight time on your invoice. So insurance is basically covered under the cost of the job that way. It protects you and others and it's definitely highly recommended to get insurance.
For Chris's personal use, he does not have insurance. When he flies his Mini Mavic (that fits in the palm of his hand) it's not really gonna hurt any body if it falls out of the sky. However, if you look at Chris's Phantom 4, it's a pretty beefy drone. The blades could cut you, they are sharp and have fixed blades. It'll cut you up pretty good if you get hit by it. So with the City of Conover, they do carry insurance and it's covered under the insurance policy. It runs them about $1,000 a year.
At the end of the day - you don't need it, it's not required. That's the nature of insurance, just in case. But it's fairly cost-effective and simple to get, so, why not?
Work Task to Hobby
It all started with his work for Chris. After flying for the economic department, he discovered it was a lot of fun and he wanted to try a little side hustle. So Chris created Uplifting Imagery to house and display the budding portfolio of his photos and UAV imagery work. While it's generated nominal business at this point, Chris's long-term goal is to retire and parley his UAV photography passion into a more lucrative business.
Photo Credit: Chris Niver, Uplifting Imagery
Right now, Chris does a lot of projects for fun, family and friends. Chris is enjoying taking time to build up experience in the air to keep practicing, even after having been an operator for a couple of years already. When he takes a $2,000 drone into the air, he still get's a little white-knuckled. It's a little nerve-wracking to throw a couple thousand dollars in the air, hope you keep control of it and nothing goes wrong.
For Chris's personal use and side hustle, he gets about 1080 P video resolution with his Mini Mavic and 4K with the Phantom 4 for day-job related work.
Opportunity in Aerial Photography
With a 4K drone, you can capture some beautiful photos. And as a photo hobbyist and someone who loves to just get that right shot, Chris has seen that you can really get some amazing angles and pictures of things that you would never have dreamt of. The real estate business is capitalizing on this right now. Many real estate agents have seen the value in aerial photography for real estate but aren't aware of the need to get licensed and certified first. There is a growing due diligence among folks to verify licenses and credentials to ensure maximum compliance.
Photo Credit: Chris Niver, Uplifting Imagery
There are a lot of easy ways to make some money in a side hustle with a UAV. A budding hobbyist can make an easy $200-$300 just shooting a couple of aerial shots for real estate agents in the area or of the neighborhood. This is so helpful to discover how the house sits, what it looks like on the plot and more. A friend of Chris's lives out on a lake and Chris has been able to get such beautiful shots from the lake and above the lake - things you would never get to see or get shot unless you had a drone. The house with the lake and the wooded backdrop - it's so beautiful and made a wonderful framed photo.
Growing a Side Hustle with UAVs
UAVs are a budding industry and are still taking off (no pun intended). Chris often sees UAV jobs and calls for licensed UAV pilots for various activities like shooting for movies, jobs for generating aerial footage and much more. Chris encourages others, if you are looking to get into and grow your UAV portfolio and side-hustle, to just pick up the phone! Give folks a call and put your hat in the ring. You won't get a no until you try!
Low-hanging, side-hustle fruit as a UAV operator definitely resolves around the real estate space. Also, consider connecting with friends and family who might need some aerial photography/filming work. For another example, Chris had some friends who wanted to layout their garden in the backyard. So Chris was able to help a friend, get some practice via aerial shots, put a scaled grid on the photos and his friends were able to measure and plan out a wonderful garden in part to him.
Chris encourages taking paid or unpaid opportunities just to get more air time and improve. As you get better and your work starts to sharpen and speak for itself, you can start looking for pickier (and paid!) gigs.
Photo Credit: Chris Niver, Uplifting Imagery
Another avenue, very similar to traditional photography opportunities, is considering printed products: framed work, post cards, Christmas or holiday cards, calendars, photography prints and more. Especially with unique aerial shots, landscapes and nature photography, getting into your local community and showing your work in it's different forms can certainly add to side-hustle income. Just be sure to have that commercial license so you can sell in compliance!
Take Off & Airspace Rules
It's very important that wherever you take off or land from, you get permission from the property owner. You can take off from any public space or your yard. But when you think about it, nobody owns the AIR space above your yard or property. So if you own a piece of property, you own the ground but not the airspace above it. Some municipalities or bigger cities may have a no-drone zone in their city parks and that's mostly for the privacy of the people. So always check your local laws and regulations, because every city is different, every state's different - even state parks are different. Some allow you to fly, some don't. So whenever you land and take off, make sure you have permission. You can fly anywhere you want once your off the ground (and stay in FAA regulated airspace).
Within that, there are still some areas you have to be cognizant of - you can't fly around airports, helipads (class A, B and C airspace). You will learn all of this information when you study for your test to get certified.
Getting Part 107 FAA Certified
What to expect
Aside from buying the drone itself, getting certified is the next big thing. And honestly, you are actually studying to be a small plane pilot. You would basically have the same license as a CESSNA pilot without the airtime. There are things in this test that you will have to know but that you will never use practically - like runway notifications, runway landing and runaway patterns. Different classes of airspace, basically class G means you can fly just about anywhere. There are apps that tell you all of this - one of which is called AirMap. AirMap will help you determine how far away you are from fly or no-fly zones and need to get permission, etc. to fly here.
Fortunately for Chris in the City of Conover, he is greater than 5 miles from the nearest airport and doesn't have to worry about crossing into the wrong airspace. But, if he were to go to the neighboring city of Hickory where the airport is, he would have to get clearance via submitting the request through LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability). This just allows air traffic control to know there's a drone in the air and who's flying it.
The devil's in the details on this part of being a UAV operator, but once you know, you are all set to go. There are numerous practices tests you can take to prepare for the certification test, but Chris found a few online resources instrumental in the passing of his test to become certified.
Studying for the certification test was a multi-pronged approach for Chris. Along with self-study with two textbooks of "Remote Pilot 2020 Test Prep" and "Airmans Knowledge Testing Support for Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, Remote Pilot and Private Pilot," Chris signed up for a course through The Pilot Institute. The gentleman who runs the drone course is a pilot who puts out many useful resources like articles, podcasts and videos on latest in UAV regulation and news.
Chris (not a sponsor) highly recommends The Pilot Institute because the course did a great job of not only memorization and repetition of information, but the course gives a deeper look into the background and the 'why' to do certain things. The course dives into great detail and is clearly broken out into modules that you can re-do as many times as you like. Chris believes his 94% passing grade on the test was a great attribution to the learning from this course. There are many other great course options out there. The course ran about a few hundred dollars and Chris found it was worth every penny. At a work-at-your-own-pace, it took Chris roughly two weeks to complete, at 20-35 minutes a day. Once you sign up, you become a lifetime member and get access to a robust Facebook user group of UAV flyers. If you have questions, just want to connect with others studying for their license or want support understand a law or concept more fully, this is a great resource.
Taking the Test
When the time comes, there is a cost to the test. You take the test at an FAA regulated testing location. You can find your nearest location on the FAA website. There are several testing locations across the country and the closest one to Chris was in Charlotte, NC, about 45 minutes away. The certification test is about a 60 question, multiple choice test that you have roughly an hour and a half to complete. There will be trick questions (what good test doesn't?!) but that really helps ensure testers and future operators have a solid concept of the knowledge, not just memorization abilities.
Building Skill & Experience as an Operator
Chris's singular advice for building up your ability as a proficient flyer can be summed up in one word: YouTube. Getting a drone home, unpacked and out of the box - there aren't a lot of instructions after turning it on. In the way you might take a drivers education class to operate a car, there really aren't any classes like that to master or introduce drone operation because they are all a little bit different. In Chris's experience, it's a mostly self-taught journey. By finding your specific drone model and learning from others on YouTube, you can do things like calibrate your drone compass, active your GPS signals and much more. There are many online resources for just getting started, what not to do, even down to specific models. Then, it's just a matter of trial and error - get out in a big open field. And start practicing! An open field is a great starting place as there isn't as much to crash into or navigate around.
So, you have your drone, it's fully charged and you're ready to give it a first spin. Go for it! Practice makes perfect. A model like Chris's Mini Mavic has GPS capabilities so it can hover really well. On Chris's first flight, he flew his UAV up to eye level, flew it left and right, forward and back and just focused on getting a good sense of the controls, then landing successfully. Chris emphasizes the resource of YouTube to get very practiced and knowledgeable on the physical operation of your UAV. The last thing you want to do is be under researched, over zealous and lose your drone on a maiden voyage!
Photo Credit: Chris Niver, Uplifting Imagery
It's a matter of 'time on the sticks.' As you put time into operating and practicing, you'll improve. Especially since UAV operation is an ever-evolving skill that will grow as you dedicate time and effort to it, Chris feels that he get's better with every flight. Chris's operation techniques have changed over the years as he has been flying. He originally started with technique A as seen the the picture below on the left, and is now building skill with the 'pinching' technique B as seen in the picture below on the right:
Chris has found that the pinching technique allows for much more control over speed and direction. He recommends just getting out there and experimenting to grow your skills. You will find that your skill operating will correlate with the time and energy you put into practicing - as with many things in life. Muscle memory kicks in and you get better and better.
Interacting with others while Operating
In addition to having your FAA certification to CYA and be the best operator you can be, there are some other useful gadgets and items to consider as you start flying. One item that Chris has found useful is his reflective, FAA Certified Operator's vest. Chris highly recommends getting one, whether you are FAA certified or not (vest options available on Amazon). It greatly help cut down on questions or interruptions. If you're flying a drone, folks will likely stop and talk to you and see what you are up to. But you have a bird in the air that you have to control and can't take your eyes off. So the vest can alert others to the fact that you are in flight and can't talk as much. You can also simply explain you are a operating a drone right now and can't speak. Many folks are just curious, so it's important to be polite just be honest as to how much you can divide your attention while responsibly operating your USV.
Note on Toy Models
If you're gonna buy a drone, Chris recommends skipping the toy models. With smaller toys, the demand to maneuver the throttle to keep a drone in the air is constant. It can be very difficult to keep a drone in a single space and doesn't translate as highly to actual UAV operation. Chris recommends starting with a model like his Mini Mavic (around $500). Chris recommends, if you are just starting, to get the Fly More package. The Fly More package comes with extra batteries. The extra batteries are super useful as the Mini Mavic has about a 20 minute battery life - just long enough for you to get more comfortable in the air before you have to take it down and re-charge. The extra batteries give you more flight time, practice time and fun time.
Respecting Wildlife & the Environment:
Chris recommends a few resources including USDA, Forest Service know before you go and Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge tips for responsible drone flying and wilderness regulations while respecting wildlife as a UAV operator.
The most notable call out are the highlights below from the USDA Forest Service "Know Before You Go" information:
"Protect Wildlife & the Environment
- Do not fly over congressionally designated wilderness areas or primitive areas as many people seek these places for the opportunities for solitude and quiet that they provide.
- Do not fly over or near wildlife as this can create stress that may cause significant harm and even death. Intentional disturbance of animals during breeding, nesting, rearing of young, or other critical life history functions is not allowed unless approved as research or management.
- Follow State wildlife and fish agency regulations on the use of UAS to search for or detect wildlife and fish.
- Launch the UAS more than 100 meters (328 feet) from wildlife. Do not approach animals or birds vertically with the UAS."
At the end of the day, a strong guiding principle as you start diving into drones is this: Know before you go AND Ask for permission, not forgiveness. Respect the rules, respect people's privacy, respect the wildlife. There are so many ways to use UAVs to positively impact the world while also adding to our personal enjoyment and respecting others. Have fun!
Did you enjoy the webinar? Do you have any questions for Chris? Drop your thoughts in the comments below and ask your questions in this thread.