What Does the Rise in Drones Mean for Events?

Once synonymous with military operations, drones are quickly becoming the production tool of choice among various industries. 

What Does the Rise in Drones Mean for Events?

Google “Enrique Iglesias drone injury” and scores of YouTube links appear showing the famous singer, clearly captivated by the flying object, grabbing for it during a concert in Tijuana, Mexico, last summer. He reaches for the blades—as if it was a toy—and nearly loses a finger. In a matter of seconds, the fascination and dangers of one of today’s fastest-growing technologies are summed up.

Once synonymous with military operations, drones are quickly becoming the production tool of choice among various industries. Movies were among the first to seize the potential to capture memorable moments and scenes from views otherwise not easily attained, but agriculture, commercial real estate and sports have caught on fast.

The popularity has trickled down to hobbyists and amateurs, with the Federal Aviation Administration estimating more than 1 million drones were sold during the 2015 holiday season. In the meetings and events world, photographers and videographers often feel compelled to own and operate the unmanned aerial vehicles for fear of losing business to a competitor. Hotel companies and venues are finding drones invaluable for providing updates on construction projects and virtual site visits of meeting spaces and outdoor facilities (think golf courses and rooftop views).

Ambitious and innovative planners are seeking photos and videos only obtainable by a drone to keep events in attendees’ minds months later, with hopes they will build attendance in future years. To hear experts in the field talk about drones, this is only the beginning.

“What’s out there today is nothing compared to what’s going to be of the drone two years from now,” says Chris Savas, owner of Chris Savas Photography, who specializes in conferences, meetings and events. (Full disclosure: Connect is one of his clients).

“The future is way ahead of us.”

Flying High

A majority of tech-savvy professionals gravitated toward drones in the past two years—which is when Savas bought his DJI Inspire 1 and Elliott Augustine, another Atlanta-based early adopter, launched American Drone Industries.

“I used to fool around taking pictures of sunrises around town and get frustrated because power lines would always get in my shots,” says Augustine, who operates his drone business in addition to another company, WebXperts Design, founded in 1997. “The first time I went up 200 feet and saw I could get a completely different view, I fell in love with [flying drones]. Now it’s a passion.”

The reaction is not unusual, says Ted Bahr, chairman of InterDrone, which became one of the drone industry’s marquee events in its first year, luring nearly 2,800 attendees to Las Vegas in September 2015.

“Boys and their toys,” says Bahr, who likes to say his event focuses on “happy, peaceful drones.” Bahr is, of course, alluding to the military’s use of the devices, which has led to a debate in other industries about what to call the vehicles when performing much more benign activities.

UAV is used by some; Savas likes quadcopter; but drone seems like it’s going to stick, according to Bahr.

The nomenclature conversation itself is a reflection of the increasingly common technology in today’s society.

That doesn’t mean drones, for all of their effectiveness capturing mesmerizing images, are not still considered hazardous by some—and worse by others. As the number of drones has increased in U.S. municipalities, so have incidents resulting in injuries and negative press coverage. That has left government agencies and cities scrambling to keep airspace safe.

In November 2015, the Chicago City Council, in part to head off the influx of drones over last year’s holiday season, banned drones 5 miles near the city’s airports and created no-fly zones over churches, schools, hospitals, police stations and private property without the owners’ consent. 

Scott Schenker, general manager of worldwide events for Microsoft and a Chicago native who prides himself on being ahead of the curve on trends, says the Windy City’s reaction fits into one of three patterns resisting change: “That can’t be done, and someone goes off and does it; you shouldn’t do it; and we won’t allow you to do it,” recites Schenker. “It’s interesting that places are outlawing flight paths.

There is certainly some basis for it if you think of [drones] as flying helicopters and airplanes, if not in scale, but in technology.” Indeed, a new world order is coming—steered by the FAA, NASA, Amazon, Google and other companies like Skyward, which is on the cutting edge of drone software and regulations.

Late last year, the FAA began requiring all drones to be registered and assigned a number like airplanes. Further down the road, lanes at different altitudes will likely be created to accommodate the increasingly cluttered airspace as Amazon works to get its drone-shipping plans off the ground.

“This wild, wild West thing will come to an end,” says Savas. Where is it all leading? “This sounds really crazy, but I’ll tell you anyway because it’s coming from [Skyward],” says Savas. “This is all a predecessor to flying cars. It probably won’t be like ‘The Jetsons,’ but it’s about 15 years out.”

Not a Toy

On a nearly perfect day to fly—maybe a bit windy for his liking—Savas organizes a drone demonstration at a public park in Norcross, Georgia. It’s a serene setting and there’s no danger of flying directly over people—as it should be, he says.

Out comes a foldable table, followed by a case including his $6,000 drone, the state-of-the-art digital camera that attaches to the vehicle, two remote controls (so one person can operate the camera and another the drone), multiple batteries (each lasts about 15 minutes) and an iPad to guide his steering.

No wonder the man dressed in all black is smiling like a child on Christmas. Hundreds of thousands of big kids and small kids had the same joy—until they flew their new drone into a tree. That’s because big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target have made it easy to buy drones. However, the quality of a drone modeled after the Millennium Falcon, for example, is not going to be the same as one made by industry leader DJI.

“If you fly those outside with more than a 2 mph wind, they are going to fly away forever,” says Augustine, who shares that upwards of 90 percent of those lower-level drones gifted during the holidays won’t last past the first week.

Savas says the real danger of all the drones-as-gifts is it perpetuates a misconception that a drone is a toy. Instead, it’s a heavy piece of equipment with sharp blades that has caused severe wounds, like taking a toddler’s eye out in England and nearly costing Iglesias his finger in front of thousands of fans.

For the record, he continued performing wearing a bandage. Lost in all the excitement of a new drone is the practice and hours it requires to be a good pilot. “It takes a lot of crashes, screams and tears to become good,” says Augustine, who has a cash reserve to replace a drone in case of an accident.

Savas agrees the bulk of the drone incidents that make headlines are the result of an inexperienced or reckless pilot taking unnecessary risks. He says the devices should only be used for events when the photographer can film outdoors and out of harm’s way.

Not only does that limit the damage should there be an accident, it also protects the photographer because drone insurance is prohibitively expensive and does not cover injuries, says Savas.

To stay under the FAA’s radar, Savas suggests following these four regulations:

> Don’t fly directly over people, for safety purposes.

> Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport.

> Maintain a line of sight with your drone at all times.

> Never fly higher than 400 feet.

The next frontier may be to fly drones inside, where the FAA has no jurisdiction. Amazon and UPS already use the vehicles to assist their production delivery systems. Planners and the organizations they represent are eager to capture a picture of the whole audience at a general session or evening reception, and Bahr says advancements in “sense and avoid” software to prevent crashes will make it increasingly possible.

The price tag, compared to full-scale helicopters that cost millions to rent, won’t cost you an arm and a leg. But it might cost you a finger—if you’re not careful.

Without GPS to guide them, drones are lost indoors. Some drones, like the one Savas owns, are equipped with ground-facing radar so they can fly indoors. But they need to detect a pattern like on a carpet to fly effectively. Savas recalls flying his drone indoors above a concrete floor, and not fondly. He constantly fought for control when directing the copter.

“It was the most nerve-wracking thing I ever did,” says Savas. “It was a nightmare. I’ll never do it again; it’s not worth it.” In part, that’s why Savas refers to his drone photography as only a part of his business. “All it is to me is another camera,” he says. “It just happens to fly.”

That’s how Schenker sees the drone phenomenon as well. Despite leading a technological giant’s events team, he doesn’t view drones as a necessity. He grants that he’s more likely to hire a photographer with a drone than one without that capability if the rates are comparable, but that’s where his thought process ends.

“I don’t know how much it becomes a tool for anyone except for photographers,” he says. “It’s a tool to deliver an image.” “I’m not looking at the events world and saying this solves a problem,” adds Schenker. “It doesn’t make registration lines faster. Maybe with a keynote or general session, you can get an interesting point of view or [media] feed.” Nevertheless, drones remain high in demand. Augustine’s website includes case studies with multiples concerts, city events and races. Planners “want to create something that is going to be shared among people,” he says. “That’s why we are called.”

What’s Ahead?

As with any new technology, advancements are coming. For instance, audio remains a challenge when filming with a drone. “They are noisy little buggers,” says Bahr.

Augustine says he employs staff to use microphones at ground level to later sync up with the video feed. Live streaming may also lie ahead, which would benefit the likes of Augustine who could charge more for the work. He says he is in contract talks with a building developer about sending a feed to an executive at a meeting in real time so he can assess progress. Augustine also envisions marathons and other races, like Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race, the New York City Marathon or Tough Mudder mud runs, as prime targets to attract audiences willing to pay between $1 and $3 for the footage.

Drones are already being employed for races, similar to remote-controlled cars. The Drone Racing League, run by CEO Nick Horbaczewski, formerly of sports events company Tough Mudder, was expected to make a major announcement in the first quarter of 2016. In the meantime, enthusiasts are finding empty garages and parking lots for informal races, as occurred at InterDrone.

That is only one example of drones moving from being a tool at events to the center of them.

Bahr admits had he started InterDrone a year later, the conference would have seemed outdated. But by getting at the forefront, Bahr established a big-tent program that is the standard-bearer for the drone industry. Several companies made important announcements at the conference rather than at previously established shows. It also received positive press from the likes of The New York Times and ABC News.

Bahr says the booming drone industry is due for the bubble to burst, resulting in companies and products to consolidate or specialize in a specific aspect of the vehicles. But drones are not going away. Why? The price tag, compared to full-scale helicopters that cost millions to rent, won’t cost you an arm and a leg. But it might cost you a finger—if you’re not careful.