Relatively few people are fortunate enough to turn a hobby into a career, but Chris Leatherman is doing it.
He was first introduced to drones in 2012, and he now runs Aerial Solutions of Wyoming, a company that specializes in the use of drones to provide aerial photography and videography services.
Leatherman shares his expertise as a licensed drone pilot by teaching courses at both the University of Denver and the University of Wyoming, and he’s most interested in drones for their ability to create detailed maps. He also helped with Area 59’s recent drone workshop.
“For me, it started as a fun hobby,” Leatherman said. “I’d get outside on a nice day and fly an aircraft around, take some pictures and videos and things like that.”
He hopes to grow Aerial Solutions of Wyoming into his primary business.
Drones have exploded in popularity in recent years. The Federal Aviation Administration reports that there are 872,694 drones registered with the agency, of which 362,101 are commercial drones and 507,086 are registered as recreational. There also are 229,304 certified drone pilots, according to the FAA’s website.
There’s a checklist of rules and regulations that must be followed when operating drones, even by pilots flying merely for recreational purposes.
Commercial drone pilots are governed by different rules, and Leatherman said a change in FAA rules was what allowed him to start his business. Before the change, the only way to get a license was to take flying lessons in planes. He said he has at least 20 hours of flight in a Cessna, all for the purpose of being able to fly a drone.
The rise in popularity has followed rapidly advancing technology that makes the barrier to entry less daunting.
Leatherman got interested in drones after seeing them at a conference in 2012.
“It was pretty rough,” Leatherman said of getting into flying drones then. “For someone interested in the basic flying a drone around, it wasn’t too bad, but as you got more interested in advanced cinematography or photography, then you’re talking about getting different types of cameras.
“In 2012, if you could get a GoPro on a drone, you were doing really good. Even then, the quality of the imagery wasn’t great.”
Two of the biggest technological advances have been in the areas of advanced sensors for cameras and an increased ease in flying, Leatherman said.
“It’s just amazing how fast that technology has moved,” he said.
Leatherman made some recommendations for the various levels of interest and familiarity with the technology.
“For a starter, I wouldn’t recommend anything too expensive,” he said. “That was one of the mistakes that I made when I first jumped in. ‘Oh, I’m going to buy a $1,500 drone,’ and come to find out that I didn’t know enough about it to be a safe pilot.”
He didn’t want to make specific recommendations as being must-buy because there are so many on the market, but he was able to use them as reference points to guide those interested in what they should be looking for.
“A really good starter drone is something like the Tello,” Leatherman said. “What’s great about it is it’s very small, it’s less than half a pound, and it’s extremely safe. It can be flown indoors. Little kids who are used to playing video games can figure it out pretty fast. … It’s a very cheap little drone.
He said that the drone itself starts at $100, and with accessories like extra batteries and controllers, an outfit might set a buyer back about $200.
It also includes a first-person view camera, though it’s not 4K-quality video.
“You’re not going to be able to get them up to 400 feet because of limitations,” he said.
For intermediate users, or “someone who’s got a little bit of flight time under their belt” as Leatherman put it, he recommends drones from DJI. He pointed out that it is a Chinese company, but that “frankly they make the best products for the best prices.”
He said the DJI Mavic Mini is a good starting point for intermediate users.
“The drone starts a little bit over $400,” Leatherman said. “It’s relatively small; it’s just under half a pound, but it has a flight time of 20 minutes. I’ve had it outdoors in Wyoming wind, and they do pretty decent. A 12 mph wind is where they start to have problems.”
Additional upgrades will tack on at least $100, he said. DJI has already added the Mavic Mini 2, which isn’t that much more expensive, Leatherman said.
American-made drones for this level of user are available, but Leatherman said the only problem with them is they can be prohibitively expensive.
“One drone that comes to mind is called the Skydio 2,” Leatherman said. “From what I’ve seen, it’s a pretty good drone. It seems to be very safe, very intuitive and easy for people to learn to fly. Starting price, last time I checked, was about $1,500.”
Add-ons jump the price up very quickly.
He also said the company isn’t able to produce at the same rate as DJI, so there is a bit of a wait for them.
For users looking to become commercial flyers, Leatherman said the drones really depend on what the interests of the pilot are. The most common uses are photography and videography, and the special cameras carry sensors that can cost up to $10,000 in addition to the drones themselves, which also can cost about $10,000.
“It sounds expensive, and it is,” Leatherman said. “But the drone is securely carrying that very expensive sensor, but it also uses what’s called RTK, or Real Time Kinematic GPS, so it’s getting survey-grade data. When the prices go up, the abilities of the drone, particularly its ability to collect data, is just amazing.”
Some additional considerations for those just getting started is the wind.
“It really depends on the models,” Leatherman said.
Each will give recommendations and they should be heeded, he said. But a lot comes down to trial and error.
His Mavic Minis start to be affected by the wind at about 12 mph.
“If I was a beginner, I wouldn’t fly in wind that high,” he said. “I would fly in winds of 10 mph or less.”
If a person were flying a DJI Phantom drone, which weighs about 6 pounds, he said he wouldn’t recommend a beginner flying in conditions above 15 mph. For more experienced flyers like himself, he said he’d still recommend not flying in winds over 25 mph.
As a general rule, Leatherman said age isn’t a barrier to people who want to learn about drones, but he doesn’t hide the fact that certain hobbies might give users an advantage.
“The younger people, particularly the gamers, have a huge advantage because the controllers are set up in such a way that they really are geared for people who are gamers and used to working that way,” Leatherman said.
If a person hasn’t ever gamed before, it doesn’t put them at a disadvantage, he said; it just means they have a different learning curve.