It may have looked like Jason Jackson was just goofing off when he was trying to land a toy helicopter on a plastic cup in his office, but he was actually honing his drone piloting skills.
Jackson, vice president of California Commercial Pools in Glendora, was determined to master the maneuver because soon he’d be operating a bigger, more expensive toy: an unmanned aerial vehicle.
“I read on a forum that they’re easy to crash,” Jackson said. So he decided to practice his takeoffs and landings with a pair of cheap remote-control whirlybirds.
Civilian drones, which cost between $500 and $2,000, have become valuable tools in a variety of industries, such as real estate, a field that is constantly seeking creative ways to promote properties. They’re being employed for movie and television shoots, and farmers use them to check on crops.
They’re also proving their worth in the pool industry. Designers are deploying the machines to gather aerial footage of construction sites to compare against blueprints.
That’s particularly helpful with as-built drawings, which are rendered when changes are made to the original specs. Another benefit: With an eye in the sky documenting construction progress, builders can refer to archived footage to pinpoint trouble spots. “If there’s a problem underground, it’s easier to chase because we have aerial shots,” Jackson said.
It wouldn’t be uncommon to find a small, unmanned aircraft hovering above Robert Morgan’s projects, either. “We normally try to fly the drone once a week and follow the same path, just so we can watch the project grow,” said Morgan, project manager at Sunbelt Pools, a Dallas firm specializing in large commercial facilities.
His four-propeller helicopter is instrumental in chronicling construction, but Morgan envisions more creative uses for it. He’s putting together a time-lapse video that will show two neighboring waterpark projects taking shape side by side. He’s hoping it will be a viral hit.
“I think seeing an entire park build itself is really going to get people excited,” Morgan said.
While the technology is undeniably cool, it does present some legal concerns. The Federal Aviation Administration considers flying drones for commercial purposes illegal, citing safety and privacy concerns. Even hobbyists are restricted to flights below 400 feet and away from airports. Earlier this summer, the FAA fined a real estate agent$10,000 for flying a drone over one of his listings. However, a judge struck it down.
As far as Scott Cohen is concerned, he’s just a hobbyist, so he figures he’s in the clear. The owner of Green Scene Landscaping & Swimming Pools in suburban Los Angeles posts his pool flyovers on YouTube as a way to showcase his work.
“We’re able to get some amazing shots,” Cohen said — shots that might otherwise be too difficult to attempt with cranes, dollies and other cumbersome equipment.
Word of caution: “There is a learning curve,” said Cohen, who’s on his second drone after dumping the first in a deep end.
The potential for drones in the pool industry go far beyond high-tech photo shoots.
Michael Evingham, whose inventions include a floating, solar-powered filtration system for swimming pools, is looking to the skies for his next big breakthrough. He foresees a day when drones will be used to test water.
Using a pool as a landing pad of sorts, drones could touchdown, take a digital read of the water and send the results wirelessly to the homeowner or service technician.
“We’d have that data ready to go on our server,” said Evingham, owner of Dana Point, Calif.-based Natural Currents, which holds more than 100 patents on pool and pond products. “Before the pool service technician [arrives], everyone knows what the pool’s needs are.”
Not only could the aircraft check the water quality but – who knows? – maybe even deliver granular tablets and chlorine shock some day. It’s not a flight of fancy. Amazon is already proposing a Prime Air package delivery service. The only thing holding the Internet giant back is the FAA, which is still more than a year away from finalizing its commercial drone regulations.
“Everything is a concept right now in drone technology because we don’t have the airways yet to fly around and really do some hard R&D,” Evingham said.
Watch this video of a drone flying over a swimming pool:
This video shows how a drone could be used to test pool water: