Eye in the sky
Ross Shaffer ’10 takes to the air
The drone is hunched and wasp-like, and it buzzes into life at the command of Ross Shaffer ’10, slowly levitating off the flattened tall grass. Shaffer guides it from a control pad a few feet away, watching its progress through a smartphone attached to the remote. The drone’s mission today is an easy one—some aerial photos of a partially wooded lot in Anne Arundel County, on behalf of a real estate agent. These type of photos have become de rigueur on real estate websites and for Shaffer, who holds a commercial drone pilot’s license from the FAA, these gigs are his bread and butter. “I’ve always loved photography,” he says. “At Goucher I was a media and communications major, so I took all the darkroom photography classes and the classes where you’d go out and film a project.”
When drones—quad-copters, really—first became available to the public, it was difficult for most people to foresee the vast array of practical uses for what looked like a high-tech toy. Shaffer, a photographer with a techie bent, had already been attaching cameras to ungainly remote control helicopters, so the quad-copter, with its innate stability enhanced by GPS and motion sensors, was a dream come true for the hobbyist.
Sure, there were detractors at the beginning. Shaffer remembers his Goucher roommate, Zach Swanson ’10, giving him grief when he spent $400 on a drone early on. When Shaffer quickly used it to make $500, though, Swanson went out and bought his own. He now runs his own drone photography business, Coby Drone, based in Colorado.
For more complicated shoots, Shaffer has a second pilot working the camera, which spins and tilts independently of the drone. He has six pilots and a small fleet of drones working for Skye Cam Studios, the business he co-owns. Real estate photos and video may be the bulk of his business, but he’s done documentaries, group events, almost anything that would have required a helicopter, or a least a tough climb, in the pre-drone days. He says he recently flew a roof inspection for a Baltimore church that located a leak and saved them $250,000.
As the drone flies above the treetops, tracing the lines of the property, a radio on his belt relays air traffic chatter from planes on their way to or from BWI Airport nearby. Around here, Shaffer is limited in his flight to 400 feet above the treetops, but he’s cruising at about half that.
“If there’s a plane above, I can actually communicate and announce to them that there’s drone activity here,” he explains. “One of the things with the pilot license is we can actually fly a lot of places where hobbyists can’t, so I can even fly on the runways of small airports, but bigger airports, like BWI, you need to request permission. And they may just say no.”
Shaffer adds a bright green vest to his jeans and dress shirt. He got it for $20 on Amazon, but it lends an official look. In large black letters on the back, it reads “FAA Licensed Commercial Drone Pilot, Please Do Not Disturb.”
“We’re out in the middle of nowhere here,” he says, “but I’ve never really been hassled.”
Part of being on the cutting edge of this trend is keeping up. Shaffer is adding other technologies to his bag of tricks, such as the virtual reality Oculus Rift glasses.
“We have a 360 camera, where it’s looking in six directions at once,” he says. “Two weeks ago I was in the Bahamas, and we were going through a new property and they wanted to have this at their owners’ meeting, where you can try on the Oculus and get a feel for the property, so that was a lot of fun.”