O.C. firm uses drone to chronicle its work



ORANGE – J&M Concrete Contractors is tucked in the back of an industrial park in Orange, and shares a cul-de-sac with a company that has something to do with offshore drilling.

Between bouts of violent clanging from next door, another sound can be heard at J&M, something akin to the buzz of thousands of angry hornets.

The aggressive hum emanates from a relatively innocuous looking machine, a white, remote-controlled drone.

Mike Spaulding, a landscape architect by training who has been a J&M vice president for two years, said he wishes there were a better word than drone because of the term’s negative connotations – it often conjures up images of spy aircraft lurking in foreign airspace.

The company, founded in 1953, has worked on hundreds of Southern California projects, from Langsdorf Hall at Cal State Fullerton to Irvine’s new Pavilion Park.

Earlier this year, it began using the drone to film its projects, including its work at the 87-acre Lake Forest Sports Park.

Using remote-controlled aircraft is a new arena for many businesses, which are tentatively exploring commercial use of the devices after decades of hobbyists dominating the field.

Now, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Les Dorr, interest is growing in using the systems to make money.

That’s not what J&M is doing – yet. The company posts the videos it makes online for anyone to see. It also has given the films free of charge to its clients.

That’s because the FAA says using drones for commercial purposes is forbidden under federal aviation rules.

To be allowed to use them in that way, Dorr said, a company would have to have three things: a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and FAA approval, just like any other commercial flight.

The J&M employee who flies the drone asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, even though the company is being cautious by refusing to sell its films.

Making the films isn’t a simple task, Spaulding said: It involves charting out a course ahead of time, having the know-how to fly the drone and the expertise to edit that footage into a tight, professional clip.

And, there’s the money: “We have $500 worth of batteries on that thing,” he said.

All told, the aircraft J&M uses cost about $3,000, Spaulding said, including the GoPro camera strapped to the bottom, the “gimbal” (the support device that suspends the camera so it remains level during flight) and other pricy additions.