Carlsbad company becomes first licensed commercial drone operator

Carlsbad company becomes first licensed commercial drone operator
Co-founders Jonathan Montague, left, and Treggon Owens stand in their warehouse with one of their drones, which can cost upwards of $30,000. Photo by Ellen Wright

CARLSBAD—A few weeks ago, Treggon Owens was juggling conference calls between the Federal Aviation Administration, the admiral of the Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego and officials at Lindbergh Field.

He wasn’t planning some elaborate stunt. Instead, he was trying to get the “money shot” of downtown San Diego with the use of an unmanned aerial system, or drone.

The company he co-founded along with three others, Aerial Mob, is one of the seven Federal Aviation Administration-licensed businesses to operate drones for commercial filming.

In the end, Aerial Mob couldn’t take off in the bay because North Island is only closed six days a year, and the timing wasn’t right.

However, about two weeks ago the company operated the first ever FAA licensed drone shoot for a car commercial.

Combined, the founders including Owens, Steve Blizzard, Tony Carmean and Jonathan Montague have about 30 years of experience flying drones. They’ve only done two legal drone shoots though because the regulations have yet to catch up with the technology.

“Usually technology makes a leap and rules are lagging to follow it,” co-founder Montague said. “In this case it’s the (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or drone.”

Aerial Mob is one of seven companies to receive an exemption from the FAA to operate drones for commercial purposes.

Now that they’re regulated by the FAA, they can work with more film companies who, in the past, stayed away from the unregulated drones because of liability reasons.

Owens said they can do the same amount of work of three film crews.

“If you pay for us to come out and do one aerial (shot) that’s grand you may not get your $10,000 to $15,000 worth, but if you’re using us for the whole day and getting 10 different scenes or 10 different shots, it’s very cost effective,” Owens said.

He said that the day use of a higher-end drone is half the cost of a traditional helicopter.

Drones are also smaller and more agile than helicopters, so they can film in tighter and harder to reach areas, “from toenails to skyscrapers,” Owens said.

“It gives the director new creative freedom in that they can do things continuously that they could never do before,” Owens said.

For every single shoot Aerial Mob does, they have to get approval from the FAA, which can be difficult at times because of time constraints.

“The FAA doesn’t move that fast,” Owens said.

However, officials have “bent over backwards” to get them approval, even working Thanksgiving to get them the certificate they needed for a particular shoot, according to Owens.

It takes a lot of work to get the paperwork done in time for shoots.

“80 percent of the work is not on the day of production, it’s happening here in the office and between here and Washington D.C., with the FAA and getting all the approvals,” Owens said.

Aerial Mob isn’t just a film production company. They build and design all of their own equipment and hope to use their drones for other purposes down the line.

One big industry drones are used for internationally is agriculture, said Owens. Farmers can use drones to disperse fertilizer and pesticides over large swaths of land.

They can also use it to inspect the health of their crops from a remote location.

Drones are useful for jobs that are dirty, dangerous or dull, Owens said, like inspecting the blades of wind turbines or looking for cracks in extensive piping systems.

Owens also sees drones as a way to get children excited about science, technology, engineering, art and math.

“It encapsulates everything that’s cool about steam,” Owens said.

For now the co-founders at Aerial Mob are focused on film shoots but hope to expand over the years, as regulations relax a bit.

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