Drones with cameras: A billion-dollar business?


By Sofia Pitt and Andy Rothman

Drones are controversial—and they haven’t even been regulated yet—but for one former Marine, they’re already bringing in some big bucks.

A few years ago, on a whim, Patrick Smith attached a GoPro camera to a Styrofoam airplane. When he later reviewed the footage, he realized the vast potential for these flying machines.

“I was blown away! I was like, ‘This is aerial photography without having to hire or pay for a real airplane,'” said Smith, the founder and CEO of Aerial Media Pros, which makes remote-controlled drones that can carry a wide array of cameras.

A former Marine is making drones for aerial photography and selling them for various applications from farming to film making.
Source: Patrick Smith
A former Marine is making drones for aerial photography and selling them for various applications from farming to film making.

It took him a little while to get it right. At first, his footage was shaky, but after he figured out a way to steady the shot by creating a mount capable of stabilizing the camera, keeping it level regardless of how the drone moved, his business was cleared for takeoff. 

Staying true to his roots, Smith has made sure to recruit veterans. Of the 12 people that he currently employs, two are former Marines.

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Smith sells his rigs for anywhere from $700 on the low end to $20,000 to $30,000. That may seem expensive at first glance, but when you consider production companies were paying $5,000 to $10,000 an hour to rent planes to film the same type of footage he was able to capture with his drones, it makes sense.

Major production companies are using his high-end drones that can safely carry cinema-quality cameras. They have been used to shoot feature-length films, including “Tracers” starring Taylor Lautner, and “Ride,” starring Helen Hunt and Luke Wilson, both of which are expected to come out later this year.

Tonaci Tran, an aerial cinematographer who has worked on dozens of independent films, says he trusts these drones to carry his $30,000 cameras through the air, and the technology has helped his business.

“This has allowed us to provide services that would normally require a big helicopter,” Tran said. “At a lower price point and lower altitude, we can provide compelling shots that a lot of directors and agencies like.”

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Patrick Smith in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Source: Patrick Smith
Patrick Smith in the U.S. Marine Corps.

It’s not just Hollywood—large Fortune 500 corporations are using Smith’s equipment as well. Smith says Google plans to use his drones to shoot aerial video of the Seven Wonders of the World so it can update GoogleMaps. Also Elon Musk‘s Space X used one of his drones to capture footage of its Grasshopper rocket taking off.

He’s also sold drones to Deere. The farming-equipment maker has been using Smith’s equipment to test drone use for crop regulation. Smith says farmers already have benefited significantly from his drones.

“They can see where the crop is getting water, where it needs to have attention put into it and it can help them nourish the crop a lot better… they literally say it saves them thousands of dollars.”

The drones are used in a variety of other professions: Hunters use the equipment to check their traps. Police use them for search and rescue. Real estate agents use them to give potential buyers a 360-view of a listing.

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Waiting for regulation

These industries are still waiting for the government to issue regulations regarding drone use. The Federal Aviation Administration has put a ban on commercial use of drones, so industries require special permission until rules are formalized, which isn’t likely until well into next year.

Surprisingly, Smith says he’s looking forward to the new rules, because without regulation and altitude restrictions, flying drones can prove to be dangerous.

For now, regulation isn’t getting in his way. Aerial Media Pros just opened up a new location in Texas, where Smith is hoping to appeal to hunters, ranchers and farmers. He’s also hoping to branch out into the government sector and supply more copters that will serve to protect by assisting in search and rescue, making huge expansive areas coverable in a matter of hours.

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Since he started Aerial Media Pros in 2009, the business has grown rapidly; Smith says he’s currently taking in about $700,000 in monthly gross revenue.

“We’re projecting in 2017 to break $100 million in sales,” Smith says, “and there’s absolutely no reason why this couldn’t be a billion-dollar company.”

—By Sofia Pitt and Andy Rothman