Aerial drone owners blocked from doing commercial jobs

Greg Mitts hovers a drone as he and his wife, Paige, pose for a photo in Clat Adams Park. The aircraft is grounded because the FAA says drones cannot be used for commercial purposes. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Aug. 19, 2014 9:52 am Updated: Sep. 2, 2014 10:15 am

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

A drone that Greg and Paige Mitts bought can't be used for commercial purposes at this time and has been grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Quincy couple founded Vision Quest Virtual Tours in 2009, and about 90 days ago, they bought a drone to provide aerial photography and video that supplements the 360-degree photography their business has always provided.

Greg Mitts got his operator's license for the drone, had done a few jobs with it and was getting the word out about the new service. Then the FAA, which had lost a court case banning the use of drones under 400 feet, came out with a ruling on June 25 that banned commercial use of drones. Recreational uses are still allowed.

"The FAA says that if we take up a drone, we can take pictures of my mother-in-law's garden, but we can't take pictures of the 20 acres of corn right next to that garden" because it might have a commercial purpose, Paige Mitts said.

Arrests of drone operators charged with violating the FAA ruling have been made in New York and Ohio.

Elizabeth Cory, a public affairs specialist with the FAA in Des Plaines, said unmanned aircraft system operations are considered on a case-by-case basis.

"The FAA promotes voluntary compliance by educating individual UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws. The FAA also has a number of enforcement tools available to address unauthorized use of UAS, including warning notices, letters of correction and civil penalties. The FAA may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system," Cory said.

Paige Mitts believes the agency is conducting "rule-making by enforcement." However, she and her husband don't plan to violate the FAA order as they wait to see how the courts rule.

Greg Mitts, 36, is a Quincy native and moved back to Quincy three years ago after living and working in northern Georgia for years. He is a professional photographer, and he uses a camera and tripod that lets him photograph a 360-degree view in nine to 12 different images. People viewing a website can rotate their view to tour businesses, hotels, resorts or real estate listings.

Paige Mitts was working in behavioral health and corporate sales. Their paths crossed in mid-2009 when the company Paige was working for hired Greg to shoot a virtual tour of a behavioral health facility.

"My admissions were transformed overnight," Paige Mitts said. "Once the virtual tour went up, instead of trying to describe the building or the rooms, I was able to answer questions about the program."

Greg and Paige were married in October 2010. They didn't have a lot of money for their honeymoon, but they stretched their travels by doing virtual tours for hotels and bed and breakfasts.

"We went on a 10,000-mile road trip with 11 jobs and came back with 54 jobs booked," Paige Mitts said.

The pair since have traveled 40,000 to 50,000 miles per year.

"Our buzz line is we're on the world's longest honeymoon," she said.

While virtual tours are still popular, the aerial drones are opening up even larger opportunities for the future. A typical real estate virtual tour runs $125, and before the FAA ruling was made public, the cost of an aerial component for the tour was $75.

"Ag imaging is going to be a huge market," Greg Mitts said. "We can take infrared images of a field and tell if there's a bug infestation problem."

From an altitude of 390 feet, drones with top quality cameras can make out details of 3 centimeters -- or a little more than an inch.

The FAA won't let drone owners charge for using the small craft to take aerial pictures, but university research projects are exempt. The Mitts are in talks with universities that might want to establish aerial photography programs.

They have plenty of other jobs to keep them busy in the meantime. They have shot virtual tours in 35 states and spend part of the year in a riverfront home in Quincy, near Greg's family, and part of the year in Charleston, S.C., where Paige's family lives.