Sometimes fame comes with a price, and for Todd Thorin, proprietor of Prairie Aerial in Sioux Falls, S.D., the cost of notoriety has been an order from the Federal Aviation Administration to cease commercial use of his company’s DJI Phantom 2 drone.
In late October, Thorin used his drone to chronicle the ascent of Kevin Schmidt, a worker with Sioux Falls Tower and Communications, up an out-of-service 1,500-foot TV tower belonging to KDLT Sioux Falls. Schmidt was assigned to climbing to the top of the tower to change a beacon light on the structure.
Thorin, who besides owning Prairie Aerial works at the tower company as its safety director, says he decided to shoot the video not only because it “would look really cool” but also because inspecting a tower before a future ascent could reduce the number of climbs needed to execute a repair.
“We just wanted to see how the drone and the video would perform in that kind of extreme environment,” he says.
As he recalls, Thorin posted the video of the tower climb in mid-November 2014. A few weeks later, it appeared on a Facebook page for ham radio enthusiasts. “When we first saw it on that page, it had more than 100,000 views,” says Thorin. “As we watched it over the next few days, it got 600,000 views on that Facebook page, but without a link back to our site.”
Soon Thorin’s phone began to ring with requests from the media to post the video on their own websites. “The Daily Mail from London called me and wanted to put it on their site, and I realized I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says.
Thorin’s first step was to ask the person running the ham radio Facebook page to take down the video.
His next move was to enlist the help of ViralSpiral, a company specializing in promoting and managing video in an effort to make it viral. In December, the video received about 30,000 views, but thanks to the efforts of ViralSpiral the number of views swelled to 1.3 million as of Jan. 7.
The drone video has gone worldwide, with versions narrated by native speakers in China and India. “I don’t understand a word being said, till they say ‘Prairie Aerial,’ ” Thorin says with a chuckle.
One group of viewers who didn’t see anything funny about the video were employees of the FAA, who promptly notified Thorin that he must cease any future use of the drone for commercial purposes.
As reported in December, the FAA is engaged in a lengthy rulemaking proceeding regarding drones, and until it completes its work only drone operators receiving exemptions to its moratorium on the commercial use of drones will be permitted to fly them.
Thorin says he will comply with the FAA’s orders and suspend commercial use of his drone; however, he plans to continue flying the Phantom 2, which he has souped up with non-stock engines, high-performance propellers, a telemetry system and enhanced GoPro camera, for fun and stay within the 400-foot ceiling and other restrictions covering the use of model aircraft by hobbyists.
Even though the FAA has clipped his wings, Thorin says there is simply too much momentum behind the use of drones to slow down their adoption.
“This technology is moving so fast, people aren’t willing to sit and wait for the FAA to complete its rulemaking,” says Thorin. “If you need some aerial photography done, just go to the Internet, and you’ll find some guy to do it.”