Last July, a private Cessna C-150 and an F-16 fighter jet collided midair in Moncks Corner - leaving numerous emergency responders scrambling to find survivors and debris.
Parts of the Cessna crashed into a body of water near a rice field. The F-16 crashed about 10 miles away. Berkeley County's rescue and police workers and National Transportation Safety Board officials rushed to find possible survivors, as well as parts of the plane to determine what caused the crash.
Summerville-based SkyView Aerial Solutions partnered with the agencies and used their drones to narrow the massive search area.
The company, founded by Derek Brayton, Tom Fernandez, Tom Lucey and Andrew McKitrick in 2014, provided aerial shots of land and water and close-ups of the plane to help map out areas for searchers to focus on.
"Instead of search and rescue divers going out blindly in the rice fields, we were able to show them definitively where items were," McKitrick said. "We ended up saving them approximately three days of work, and we helped them find all of the parts of wreckage that are extremely valuable information to them."
The F-16 pilot survived. Both the Cessna pilot and passenger died.
Search and rescue missions are one of several applications that commercial drone operators are capitalizing on in South Caorlina. Niche businesses have launched in recent years as drone technology improves and costs decline.
To the military, drones are unmanned aerial vehicles, which are often used to provide surveillance where manned flights are too risky.
Drones used by companies and hobbyists - officially known as unmanned aerials systems - are essentially tiny planes equipped with cameras and controlled by a pilot via a handhelf device on the ground below.
Helicopters and planes can handle larger and heavier cameras and endure longer flights for aerial shoots, but drones can capture aerial views at a fraction oft he cost, according to three drone companies operating in the Charleston area.
While flying time and editing images impacts pricing, they said drone shoots can cost around $1,000, while helicopter shoots can cost thousands of dollars.
Drones bring new opportunities while creating privacy concerns, safety issues and regulatory confusion.
The Federal Aviation Administration created an initial set of guidelines for commercial drone operators as a short-term supervisory safeguard while it considers a permanent rule.
"The FAA was caught by surprise. The technology outpaced the regulation, and now they are playing catch-up," said Jeff Nickles, owner of Charleston-based Drone Cam Aerial Photography. "It's one thing to fly in your yard or a soccer field, but to charge money and fly in public spaces - that's what htey want to control and regulate, and they should."
Each of the companies interviewed in this story received the FAA's Section 333 Exemption to fly commercially.
Nickels said he remembers using a drone for hte first time at a wedding.
"We got some good shots, but after a while, the mother-in-law said 'OK. That has to stop'," Nickles said. "It is somewhat distracting. People notice it and point at it."
Nickles, also the owner of Production Design Associates, a Charleston-based event and video production company, launched his drone company in 2012.
Some of the highlight since include footage of an $8 million house on Kiawah Island, traffic jams for former Charleston mayoral candidate Ginny Deerin's campaign commercials and shots of former Mayor Joe Riley and downtown Charleston for a documentary.
"It's turned from being a toy machine to one that can make money. Now the quality and the software have gotten so good that the price has come down," Nickles said. "A lot of people have drones now, and the market is going to be flooded. It already is really."
The commercial drone market was valued at $15 million in 2014 and is projected to reach $1.27 billion by 2020, RnR Market Research data show.
Utility, oil and gas inspectors, police departments and border patrol agents use drones to survey their areas. Farmers use them to identify and treat struggling crops. News media and film makers can capture footage for reporting and movies.
SkyView Aerial Solutions shot footage of the floods that ravaged the Midlands in October. The firm is now working with Mercedes-Benz Vans and Volvo to take progress shots as their facilities are built in the Lowcountry.
Since launching Birdlike Productions in Myrtle Beach last year, Mike Foytho has expanded his residential real estate and golf course portfolio to include construction projects and quarries.
"There are a lot of people with drones out there, and what some fail to realize is that it is just another tool. It is a better camera and provides a better angle, but just because you have a drone doesn't mean you can produce great images," Foytho said. "I always thought of myself as a photographer first and that the drone is a tool for that."
Drone use goes beyond the private sector as well.
Florence's Downtown Development Corp. used its drone to capture construction progress and events in the city.
The College of Charleston's geological department uses a drone to teach students how to map terrain and typography.
"Basically we use it to teach the technology and how it can be used and pushed forward," said Norm Levine, associate professor of geology.
Regulations in transition
Nickles said drone software advancements have made it relatively easy for a new operator, but technology does not replace common sense. He advises aspiring commercial drone operators to get trained, insured and focus on in-flight safety.
"When people do dumb things with drones near airports or on busy streets without taking precautions ... they cause problems for the people staying within the law and using common sense," Nickles said. "Drone operators need to take a lot of precaution because those blades could really hurt someone, and if a drone fell from high up it could potentially kill someone."
Drone operators that use the devices as a hobby have to abide by FAA guidelines, such as flying below 400 feet and not within 5 miles of an airport without special permission.
For drone operators that want to make money off their drones, they also need a Section 333 Exemption or a Special Airworthiness Certificate from the FAA.
Under the FAA's proposed rule, commercial drone operators would need to pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate.
While operating a drone, operators would have to keep the drone in sight, work with an observer, fly within 500 feet altitude and 100 mph, and not endanger aircraft, people or property.
"We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a news release.
The agency is expected to release a final rule by 2017.
While drones are relatively easy to fly, Foytho said operators have to grasp the responsibility that comes with the technology.
"You have to realize that it's essentially a 4-pound mini lawnmower in the air, and it can't be near people or buildings. ... If you fly this around on the beach around people and something happens, someone should be held responsible." Foytho said.
"This is not a kite."
Source: Charleston Regional Business Journal, February 22 to March 6, 2016. Article available only in print.