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Game of Drones: Hobbyists find different uses for unmanned aircraft

A Skycatch drone flies over the Embarcadero in San Francisco on March 19.

Forget traditional photos. Even cellphone videos are old-school. When tourist Dan Hoffman sought to chronicle his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., vacation, he unpacked his drone.

Hoffman, who works for a software company in Chicago, launched it off the beach on a recent sun-filled afternoon, capturing views of pristine aqua-blue water, rushing waves and various hotels. He then posted the video on YouTube.

“It allows for a unique perspective and, of course, Fort Lauderdale beach is beautiful,” said Hoffman, adding that people gathered around him as he flew his drone. “It was a conversation-starter.”

Most commonly associated with military exercises or futuristic sci-fi movies, these remote-controlled aircraft armed with cameras are invading South Florida skies as more people find different uses for them.

Even as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Center announced recently its plans to dispatch drones into the eyes of a storm for the first time this hurricane season, you’ve also got amateur hobbyists, real estate offices and TV production crews using them to record lush views and sweeping scenery of local landscapes.

“South Florida has great opportunities to take aerial photos and videos. The coastline, waterways and the beaches are an iconic representation of South Florida,” said Ivan Cholakov, a Pembroke Pines, Fla., information technology consultant who posts drone videos of Boca Raton and the Everglades on YouTube. “It’s difficult to see the beauty of the wetlands if you are standing on the ground, but from 100 or 200 feet up in the air you have a much better view.”

Drones have landed in the headlines recently, with municipalities and agencies trying to outline regulations for their use.

The National Park Service last month announced a ban on drones at its parks and waterways, including Everglades National Park, because the aircraft were becoming noisy nuisances for visitors and wildlife. The director said the ban is temporary while the agency drafts policy on drone use.

In Boynton Beach, officials this week rejected a proposal to ban use around city property, saying drones can help rebrand the city as high-tech friendly.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has restrictions on how drones are used for commercial and law enforcement purposes. While recreational flying doesn’t require FAA approval, the agency provides safety guidelines on its website and issued a news release last week with dos and don’ts for recreational users. Hobbyists must keep them below 400 feet and away from populated areas and airports, according to the FAA. Operators can take photos for personal use but can’t photograph a property or event for profit.

“When we are made aware of an apparent unauthorized commercial UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) operation, our main goal is to get the operator to comply with FAA regulations,” said FAA spokesman Les Dorr in an email. “We have a number of enforcement tools at our disposal, including informational calls or visits, warning letters and cease-and-desist orders.”

Still, users manage to fly around the commercial-use restrictions.

Colin Forte, who owns Hometakes.com, a video and photography business, shoots properties for real estate agent clients throughout South Florida. He doesn’t charge for them directly. The drone videos are free extras when a customer purchases the stills and videos he shoots inside a property, he said.

“In the extremely unlikely event the FAA comes knocking on my door, I am not doing this for commercial purposes,” said Forte, of Jupiter, Fla.. “We don’t sell drone shots … There is that fine line between charging for it and not charging for it.”

Barry Sharpe, who owns Sharpe Properties, a commercial real estate management company, began using drones last fall for a bird’s-eye view of his retail and industrial properties in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Sharpe said the images are for internal purposes, to check the roofs of the properties for clients. He said the company doesn’t sell them.

Josh Barth, 22, has been flying his drone for the past year over the coastline of Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale and is trying to turn his hobby into a business. In April, he started his own website, Drone Logics, to shoot drone videos for the marine industry and real estate companies located from Boca Raton to Fort Lauderdale. He’s been promoting the service on Craigslist, charging for his video and editing services. His website’s tagline is “The Sky Is Your Canvas.”

“It gives you the point of a view of being the pilot of the actual drone,” said Barth, a student at Palm Beach State College. “I think (the FAA) should have some kind of certification where you have to pay yearly so you can weed out the hobbyists from the people who actually know what they’re doing and want to make money off of it.”

The growing popularity of drones can be partly attributed to their falling price tags, said Carmine Crudele, who works at Maniacs Hobby, a Plantation, Fla., hobby store. Basic drones start at $90, while more high-tech ones can run more than $1,600, depending on the add-ons such as extra batteries and cameras. The gadgets weigh anywhere from a few grams to 55 pounds.

They’re also easy to operate, Crudele said, and companies offer tutorial sessions on how to operate them. DSLRPros, which sells various types of drones at its store in Oakland Park, Fla., has a training video on its website for first-time users.

“Anyone can literally fly them,” said Crudele. “You don’t have to sit there and crash an airplane over and over to master these things. They are very easy to learn.”

Web programmer William Evans, 35, recently flew his drone, a Phantom 2 Vision Plus, at sunset off Biscayne Bay.

He sported special goggles that allowed him to see what the GoPro camera mounted in his drone sees, including height, tilt and distance.

As he nudged a joystick on his console, dog walkers and runners stopped and looked out in the distance over the bay to spot his drone. Looking like a flying robo-bug, the drone blinked a green light and sounded like a whirring vacuum cleaner thanks to four propellers.

“Right now I am practicing getting good at it,” said Evans, who also posts his footage on YouTube. “Just flying, it’s beautiful out here.”

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