2 Air Force veterans are using drones for more than just photos

An AscTec Firefly unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, sits on the floor during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Nov. 19, 2015, in Washington, D.C.


By ELY PORTILLO | The Charlotte Observer | Published: July 24, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — When Brett Smith and Walter Lappert prepare to launch their customized drones for real estate developers and surveying work, they talk about checklists, payloads and missions.

If they sound jargon-y, it’s because the pair, owners of Charlotte UAV, are Air Force veterans who honed their skills arming bombers with precision weapons during the U.S.’s long wars in the Middle East. When they started Charlotte UAV in 2014, the duo decided to use their technical expertise in the business world.

“I knew we had something there,” said Smith, who left his consulting job to join the company full-time after Lappert, a life-long radio-controlled helicopter enthusiast, finished a drone program at Kansas State. Charlotte-based Intelligent Buildings, which offers systems that monitor and control energy usage and security in buildings, recently invested in Charlotte UAV. The size of the investment wasn’t disclosed.

Drones might still seem futuristic, but they’ve become commonplace in real estate, especially since the Federal Aviation Administration established rules for commercial operators that don’t require a fully licensed pilot who could also fly a traditional aircraft. Drone photography has gone from novelty to standard practice in real estate marketing, supplanting helicopters as a cheaper and quicker alternative.

But Lappert and Smith are expanding beyond the swooping videos and wide-angle shots from hundreds of feet up (though they offer those as well). They’re using drones mounted with thermal sensors to look for defects in roofs and leaking pipelines, creating topographical maps with surveyors and even building autonomous, land-based rovers that can detect leaking methane and water-based drones that can tow sonar arrays.

“What we do in a day is what could take weeks” if done without drones, Smith said. “We’re data creators.”

In their workshop on Distribution Street in South End, they customize commercial drones with 3D-printed parts, building models that are far larger than what you’d buy off-the-shelf for a Christmas present. The largest can carry 150-pound payloads, and the drones can fly longer than the 20-minute times many hobbyist models achieve. Compared to the fly-buzzing sound that small hobby models make, the bigger commercial drones sound like a massive swarm of angry wasps.

The drones aren’t cheap. With high-definition sensors mounted, a mid-sized drone with six rotors can run $25,000, Lappert said. Charlotte UAV builds both drones for sale and works with a network of licensed operators to offer services to companies that don’t want to buy their own unmanned vehicles.

Carbon-fiber rotors, extra battery packs and fuselage models for various drones and Air Force planes are strewn about their Distribution Street workshop in the C3 Lab co-working space (Charlotte UAV is relocating to a larger space soon).

Drones are still a source of controversy. In June, a pilot preparing to land a passenger jet reported a drone about 1.5 miles from Charlotte Douglas International Airport, well within the zone where drones aren’t allowed. The week before, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said a drone nearly collided with their helicopter above crowded BB&T Ballpark during a game. And uptown residents have complained about peeping drones outside their apartment tower windows, prompting privacy concerns.

Smith said they’re committed to keeping up with the quickly changing rules and regulations around drone use in the U.S.

“This is a rapidly evolving technology,” he said.

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