Welcome to the Drone Age: An Airborne Revolution
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photographer // Laura Arick
The CIA has been flying drones since 2000, long before drones were at the top of many kids’ holiday wish lists. Drone technology has continued to evolve and is now used today for commercial as well as recreational practices. The commercial drone services industry is estimated to grow to $8.4 billion in 2025.
A couple of highly skilled pilots saw an opportunity to engage in the drone revolution and create a nationwide team of the country’s best UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) service providers. BirdsiVideo is headquartered in Carmel, Indiana. It was established in 2014 by Carmel residents Josh Kneifel, CEO, and Gordon Dowrey, COO/CTO.
BirdsiVideo is FAA certified and fully insured. Kneifel and his team pride themselves on delivering the best aerial imaging and data consulting services at a fraction of traditional costs. BirdsiVideo offers surveying, Aerial Mapping, Infrastructure and Site inspections, Disaster Relief and On-Demand Aerial services as part of its menu of cutting-edge aerial technology services.
Kneifel’s is a former flight instructor and pilot for Continental Airlines.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak in my blood,” Kneifel said. “I bought a Phantom II and had no intentions of starting a business. I just thought it looked cool and was going to play around with it.”
He contacted a family friend and asked for permission to capture footage of their home and property with his drone.
“I got some software and taught myself how to edit video,” Kneifel shared. “I sent my friends a marketing-type video of their home, and they loved it. My friend hired me to do videos of his 16 apartment communities, and I made some money. Then realtors started calling, and I thought there is something to this.”
The drone technology at that time was literally a Go-Pro camera strapped to a drone, and there weren’t any integrated or thermal technologies available with a drone back then.
“I did a decent amount of business in 2014,” Kneifel said. “I didn’t have the time or the money to expand, open up offices and hire employees all over the country, and I had been shopping franchises back before I read the drone article, so I thought this is a home-based model. It has low overhead and good profit margins. It’s new and sexy, and there’s demand. I decided this is a perfect little franchise model.”
Kneifel contacted a firm that helps people start franchises. With his business model and money that he made in 2014, he invested into establishing the franchise and, in the process, met Gordon Dowrey who also has a strong background in aviation. He flew helicopters in the Army for 14 years and has experience in property management and consulting.
BirdsiVideo currently has 15 franchises, some of which own multiple territories throughout the U.S., and also has strategic partnerships in the United Kingdom and South America.
Interestingly, when the two started out, there were no FAA regulations governing drone usage. Kneifel compared those days to the “wild, wild west.”
“Being a pilot, I knew what the airspace regulations were/are,” Kneifel explained. “We knew that there was demand for regulations and that they were forthcoming.”
Kneifel’s prediction was realized in 2015 when the FAA came out with Section 333, a law stating that any aircraft operating in the national airspace requires a certification and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot and operational approval. Both Kneifel and Dowrey are licensed pilots, so they were one of the first in the nation to get their certifications per Section 333.
“When they [FAA] decided to open the door for the average Joe, meaning that he/she doesn’t need a pilot’s license, there were suddenly 120,000 people with a drone license versus 1,000 when we first started out,” Kneifel said. “That helped us sell franchises and kept us growing and attracting partners/investors, but there was a race to the bottom, mainly for the real estate market and in marketing videos and the general weddings and events. That’s when we decided to steer away from marketing and focus on what you see listed on our website today.”
BirdsiVideo focuses on the higher-end services for which people generally don’t have the background and experience to take the job.
“We’ve turned down a number of jobs because of the regulations,” Kneifel admitted. “There are a bunch of regulations, and that’s where the aviation side comes into this business. You need to know what’s going on from the aviation and safety side throughout this business. FAA’s pure goal is safety.”
Both Kneifel and Dowrey emphasized that knowledge of current FAA regulations is important to any drone operator, regardless if it’s for commercial or recreational use.
“Every drone has to be registered with the FAA,” Kneifel stated. “Not everyone knows to do that.”
Dowrey listed some of the most common violations that are generally caused because of ignorance of the regulations.
“There are two categories of drone operators: hobbyist and commercial,” Dowrey explained. “Commercial is where you need a Part 107, a drone license issued through the FAA. If you are flying your drone for your own fun, you don’t need the license, but you still have to register the drone and follow the regulations, which are not flying over certain altitudes; you can’t fly over to the neighbor’s and peek into their windows; you can’t fly over moving traffic; and you can’t fly over crowds of people.”
Kneifel added, “You’ll see a drone swooping down over people in downtown Carmel during marathons and other events. People need to know that you can’t fly over people. It’s illegal. You can’t fly in controlled airspace either. Controlled airspace is an area within five miles of an airport with a control tower.”
Dowrey explained that there are ways to do work for public events safely and legally.
“We’ve done work for Grand Park and that kind of stuff,” he said. “You can work the periphery and do it legally and safely. It [the drone] is essentially a 5-pound rock. If it’s going 20 miles per hour and it falls and hits somebody, that’s a problem.”
Kneifel mentioned that part of the $45,000 franchise investment is the comprehensive training on regulations that is provided to franchisees.
“We train them on all that,” Kneifel said. “Then there is ongoing support because regulations change, and they can call us daily with their questions, whether they are technology, project or regulation related.”
As drone technology continues to evolve, the BirdsiVideo team is working to stay ahead of the learning curve. BirdsiVideo team utilizes infrared sensors as part of its system. The BirdsiVideo team also uses Photogrammetry, a type of photography used in surveying and mapping to measure distances between objects. The team is looking to integrate LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology now the cost for that technology is decreasing.
“It is what Google Maps uses on their cars,” Dowrey said. “With LIDAR, we’ll be able to get down to millimeter accuracy. It is really expensive, but it’s beginning to come down in price now.”
BirdsiVideo has provided some creative solutions to big problems in areas affected by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Florence, and assisted in the diabolical aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last year.
“After Harvey, we had pilots surveying areas for our clients,” Kneifel shared. “In one instance, we had to get a fiber optic line across a creek that had become a raging river. There was a lineman on the other side, and we flew a string across and then pulled the line across to the lineman. What would’ve taken days and $4,000-$5,000 to do only took us 20 minutes with a drone. There are just so many things that people are doing with drones now.” Visit BirdsiVideo at birdsivideo.com.