The Buzz About Drones

The unmanned aircrafts are hitting the mainstream, but is it a profitable business?

Since the Federal Aviation Administration designated Nevada as one of six drone test sites in 2013, Las Vegas has become a hotbed for drone development. That, along with the availability of cheaper hobby models, might have some in Southern Nevada contemplating a drone-free vacation.

But if you plan to escape on a wilderness hike in Utah or to a Hawaiian beach, forget it. According to Las Vegas-based drone retailer Mike Thorpe, fishermen in Hawaii and people scavenging deer antlers in Utah are among the groups of people actually using drones to make money.

In the past three years, a fair amount of industry attention has come Southern Nevada’s way. Last September, the Rio hosted a 3,000-person drone convention, and Aerodrome began building a drone training facility near Boulder City last year. A host of Nevada drone legislation is now in effect, and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development even has a drone expert on staff. UNLV is supporting research into policy and law surrounding drones and now offers a minor in Unmanned Aerial Systems.

So people are meeting about drones, researching and regulating drones, learning about and promoting drones … but is anyone making money using drones?

Thorpe, co-owner of Drones Plus, says he is. With a location on Decatur Boulevard, Drones Plus is a go-to place for parts, service, custom development of specialized applications and general drone information.

Thorpe says locals and people around the country are regularly using expensive drones to do business. He calls them “prosumers.”

“Prosumers are the people who buy the $10,000 to $15,000 to $25,000 drones with specialty cameras such as the Red Epics or the big DSLR cameras, instead of the built-in ones,” he says.

The majority of that specialized gear is used for movies and television production, but Thorpe says there are other, more creative applications.

“We are just in the infancy of the drone age,” he says. “We have been around two years, and we have seen the interest grow exponentially. So when we say prosumer, we mean everyone, including people who use drones for fishing.”

Wait. Fishing?

Shane Lawler is vice president of operations for Drones Plus and works from the company’s Honolulu location. He says that Hawaii’s shore casters—commercial fishermen who use fishing rods to catch large fish—use drones to take their lines out farther than they could ever cast by hand.

Their goal? Get past the reefs into deeper water where the larger, more lucrative fish live.

“They now use the Inspire series, which has the ability to raise and lower the landing gear,” Lawler says. “It allows the bottom to hang lower … it can carry up to 4 to 6 pounds. They launch them, then they flip a switch which raises the landing gear and the bait falls into the ocean.”

Amber Sampson | Vegas Seven

However, there are more prosaic commercial uses of drones.

Thorpe says contractors fly drones on pre-programmed paths around construction sites, using the same route each time while taking pictures to track the progress of the work.

Roofers and companies that install solar panels use drones to get aerial views of work sites and security firms are using them to monitor large construction sites to prevent the theft of tools, equipment and building materials.

And, of course, there are the antlers. “We have people [who use drones to look] for antlers in Utah,” Thorpe says. “I’ve spoken to a few customers who are using drones while looking for antlers and then sell the antlers.”

Because we live in Las Vegas, there’s a good chance any money to be made from drones locally will be something a little more flashy, such as a recent CES event Thorpe mentions.

“We’ve even seen drone racing become a reality,” he says. “The racers have goggles and can see what the drone sees.”

Earlier this year, Zappos transformed its headquarters into a racecourse, and a professional version of drone racing is already creating some buzz in the media.

There’s one more recreational use that could show a profit, one even more “Vegas” than racing: target practice.

“They fly them out and shoot at them,” Thorpe says.