Maryville photographer uses unmanned aerial vehicle technology

By Josh Flory

A sophisticated radio control remote operates every aspect of photographer Neil Crosby’s camera mounted helicopter. (Saul Young/News Sentinel)

Neil Crosby is an East Tennessee photographer, but his latest tool looks more like a Hollywood prop.

Crosby’s Marvyille-based firm, PhotoPlay Aerials, has begun using an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, for projects involving still photography and video shoots. The UAV has six spinning rotors mounted above two curved legs. The camera is mounted underneath, and the device has a flight range of 1,500 feet.

The soaring visual images produced by the contraption are marketed to a variety of users, but Crosby said he does a lot of real estate work. He said the UAV currently makes up about 25 percent of his workload, although it’s growing quickly.

Asked how much the craft cost, the photographer was circumspect, saying only that the vehicle — which was built in Germany — was “quite expensive.” “Once it’s rigged with the camera equipment, yeah, it’s (the cost of) a nice car,” he added.

Advances in technology are making drones more accessible, although the regulatory framework for the vehicles isn’t necessarily keeping up with the pace of innovation. In fact, it’s not clear that Crosby’s UAV is strictly legal.

Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International,

said Wednesday that the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the use of unmanned aircraft for any commercial activity. “You have to have a specific authorization from the FAA to legally fly one of these,” he said. “And the FAA does not care about the size of it.”

Gielow indicated that hobbyists who fly radio-controlled vehicles are not restricted in the same way, and that the difference has frustrated some people in the industry. He said the agency is supposed to be creating guidelines for the use of such devices.

A spokeswoman for the FAA said that “it is not legal for a company to use small unmanned aircraft for commercial photography. We have asked operators in various locations around the country to stop those operations.”

For his part, Crosby said he was told that as long as the vehicle was under 25 pounds, stayed lower than 400 feet and was always in his line of sight, it was perfectly legal.

Whatever the regulatory details, Crosby’s UAV has a tendency to create a stir when it’s flown in public. Earlier this week he demonstrated it for a News Sentinel reporter during a visit to World’s Fair Park.

The vehicle sounds like a swarm of angry hornets when it takes off, and the demonstration quickly attracted the attention of an office worker from a nearby building, a boy with a mohawk and a young woman who posed for a picture while sitting next to it.

“Kids love it and you can see women love it,” said Crosby. “It’s a sexy-looking R2D2.”

The photographer said the device is fully insured, and confirmed that he’s had some rough landings while learning to fly it. He also let a reporter try on a pair of goggles that provide a drone’s-eye view while the vehicle is in the air. The devices haven’t necessarily caught on with every local photographer, though. Stan Bass, a Knoxville-based specialist in aerial photography, said he has considered them, but warned that they’re “extremely dangerous.”

Crosby disputed that notion. Iit’s important to take precautions, but the UAVs are a “completely safe technology,” he said.