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Drones: Revolutionizing how we sell, design, and build landscapes

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The use of drone technology has quite literally elevated landscape project photography. Providing the ability to capture an entire project in one photo with aerial angles, drones also allow photographers to zoom in on specific details of a project with ease. They are sweeping through the landscape design/build industry with trending force.

Drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) can be used to shoot high definition photos and videos, which can be seen and downloaded in real time, all from the ground. Consumer level drones are capable of capturing 4K HD video, are equipped with GPS and 12-megapixel cameras, and can typically fly for an hour on a single charge.

From the Very Start of the Project

At the start of the design phase, landscape designers/contractors can use a GPS-equipped drone to scan a job site from above. Using drone mapping software—an app such as DroneDeploy, for instance— you can outline a flight plan, direct your drone to capture imagery of the job site, supplement with manually captured images, and then upload your photos into the mapping software. The app then processes your images, stitches them together, and creates a 3D model of the property. This 3D model can be imported into landscape design software, serving as the starting point for impressive 3D renderings that allow the homeowners to better understand and appreciate the proposed design. Using the drone-captured site map and 3D design software, designers can accurately estimate the cost of the build, including material calculations for hardscape elements, irrigation, and more.

As the project develops from the design phase into construction, the drone can be used to take progress pictures and monitor the field production of the job. An occasional flyover can also help your project manager and/or designer identify and address any problems that may arise. From a marketing stand point, these progress pictures can help you down the line as you prepare “before” and “after” pictures for your project case studies. If your business has an active social media presence, a drone-captured live stream video can be an invaluable way to update your followers on your work. This “day in the life” experience of a real construction site helps potential customers understand exactly what developing a landscape entails.

When a project is complete, the drone’s ability to capture the essence of your work is second to none. Whether flying high above for an expansive view of the entire project, or skimming the ground for intimate close-ups, drones offer more vantage points and angles than traditional photography. Elegant fly-through videos place the potential customer into the outdoor living space, enveloping them with the beauty of the landscapes your company creates.

Operating Drones

As drone technology improves and evolves, it will be increasingly important to keep up with changes in regulations and laws. In the US, a law was passed recently enforcing that recreational drone users no longer have to register with the FAA. However, if you are flying a drone for business or earning money off of the photography, the FAA currently requires that commercial drone operators register with the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System. Using a drone commercially will also require a Part 107 certification from the FAA. Essentially, this entails filling out an application for the FAA to review and obtaining a license to fly your drone commercially. If it is determined that your use of a drone for photographic purposes poses little to no threat of danger, you may be given this license. If you’re not new to drone operation, you may remember that the Part 107 certification was preceded by a Section 333 exemption. If you or someone on your team still has that exemption, you can continue to fly under it for two years.

It’s important to keep in mind that these rules and regulations differ between the US and Canada, and laws can depend on locality as well. If you’re flying a drone in Canada, for instance, you don’t need a license for drones weighing less than 35kg. However, if you plan on using a commercial grade drone, chances are it will weigh a bit more. In that case, you’ll need to acquire a Special Flight Operations Certificate. Laws do frequently change, so be sure to check local regulations (FAA in the US and Canadian Aviation Regulations) before operating a drone for business use. Basic guidelines to be aware of include:

  • A drone must always be in its pilot’s line of sight – try to avoid flying one on a cloudy day.
  • Drones must be flown at least five miles away from an airport (3 miles in Canada), otherwise special arrangements must be made with regulating agencies.
  • A drone must be flown under 400 feet (295 feet in Canada) and only during the day.
  • A drone must not be flown over people and must be flown from a stationary place.

Pro-tip: Keep yourself updated on local laws and regulations. Fines levied on drone users who inadvertently violate their nation or state’s flight regulations can be steep. While all of this information is up–to-date for now, regulations will continue to change and evolve in step with the growth of drone technology.

Should You Buy Your Own or Outsource?

There are plenty of reasons why owning your own drone may be a smart investment. On average, a commercial grade drone runs between $700 and $1500. When compared to some of your business’s other equipment, this isn’t too steep a cost, especially when you consider its many applications. Should you decide to keep your drone “in-house,” you will need to make sure that one or ideally, two, members of your staff are trained on how to fly and photograph with it. Most drone manufacturers offer tutorials online, and there are countless videos on YouTube, outlining how best to use a commercial drone.

It is important to keep in mind that owning a drone does not automatically translate to understanding photo or video composition. Producing high-quality content for marketing can take years of experience and training, much like it takes years of experience to master landscape design. Consider how much time and energy you want to spend learning how (or teaching your employees how) to operate a drone. Also, consider the time you may have to spend revisiting a site in order to get usable images. There’s nothing worse than spending hours taking photos and videos of a site only to find that the footage is choppy and the photos are blurry. Time spent reshooting, along with all the time spent researching, training, etc., is valuable time spent away from operating your core business.

PRO TIP: Many insurance companies are still unsure about the potential liabilities that go along with owning and operating a drone, so you may be in for some sticker shock when you go to insure your drone (and you really should get it insured, both for liability and damage).

If you don’t have the time and/or resources to dedicate to drone photography, consider hiring a professional for the ongoing job of capturing your design/build work. Depending on the photographer, sessions can cost between $50 and $200 per hour, including selecting the images and videos to keep at the end of each shoot. For some business owners, this may be a reasonable amount to pay, especially if you don’t plan on photographing every project. By using a professional drone photographer, you’re reassured that the images will fully convey the quality of your work. Be sure that the photographer you work with has the appropriate licensing and the right insurance, as well as an impressive portfolio of work similar to yours.

The Future of the Design/Build Industry

Drone technology is revolutionizing how landscapes are sold, designed, and built. Imagine sitting down with a potential client showing a 4K video fly-through of your most impressive project, or meeting with your foreman to see overhead shots of current progress photos from jobsites. From behind the scenes of your business to client relationships and social media marketing, drones can ultimately elevate your business far above the competition.

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