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Local man starts business using drone technology

Although a drone, donated to the Perham Fire department was helpful in assessing an emergency like the train/propane truck collision in Callaway last month, one local entrepreneur said emergency use is just the tip of the iceberg in how the unman...

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Boone Caughey, a Perham entrepreneur, will use the DJI Phantom drone in commercial applications that could help farmers better plan their crop rotations, harvests, weed control and more. Debbie Irmen/FOCUS

Although a drone, donated to the Perham Fire department was helpful in assessing an emergency like the train/propane truck collision in Callaway last month, one local entrepreneur said emergency use is just the tip of the iceberg in how the unmanned aerial vehicles could be used.

Boone Caughey of Perham has started an aerial photo and video service called Skycam, using drone technology, and hopes to expand the uses of the vehicle. The private pilot said the scope of drone use remains to be seen.

“The industry is really just getting going,” he said. “There are a lot of applications that haven’t been discovered yet. It’s really the wild west of drone flight.”

The DJI Phantom takes video while in flight, and once the video has been downloaded, still photos can be pulled from the video. Advances in technology have made certain drones relatively easy to fly with practice, he said.

The drone controls are similar to many RC vehicles which allow him to adjust altitude, tilt and pan rotation of the aircraft. While the battery-powered drone looks like a toy, its use is highly regulated by the FFA, which oversees aerial vehicles, including aircraft. Caughey’s drone is subject to many of the same regulations, including flight altitude. He can, however, apply for exemptions on some of the rules, such as the one that applies to fuel requirements.

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“Rules and regulations are changing very, very rapidly,” he said.

Caughey also must have a pilot’s license to operate the vehicle for commercial purposes. And he must apply for an exemption to fly the drone, which isn’t free, and takes time to complete. While he chose to do the online version, some people opt to hire an attorney to help them through the process. The pilot’s license is necessary for drones used for commercial use, he said, adding that anyone can buy a drone and fly it for recreational use; the rules are less restrictive in such instances.

Since he already had his pilot’s license, with the required 40 hours of flight time, he knew about altitude requirements – he is not allowed to fly the drone higher than 400 feet above ground level – and he conducts a preflight checklist. The vehicle is even assigned a tail number, similar to those assigned to aircraft.

As part of the checklist, he sets a “home point” that the vehicle automatically identifies in the event of a loss of connection between the remote controller and the drone. This allows the drone to land itself typically within 2 to 3 feet of its home point. It’s also important, Caughey said, to set a return-to-home altitude high enough to avoid obstacles in its path.

“It will collide with anything in its flight path if it is not set high enough,” he said. “It’s not durable in crashes.” Newer drones use obstacle avoidance technology to fly around obstacles.

With several thousand dollars invested in the vehicle, a crash just isn’t a good idea. Even hitting something as small as twig could damage the propellers, affecting flight characteristics, he said. For that reason, he carries replacement parts with him when he flies. Some drones can cost about $30,000, he said, adding that a recreational drone could cost far less.

While in flight, Caughey pans over an area collecting aerial video. Back in his office, he takes the raw video and edits the film. In some cases, he captures images and creates photos.

“The editing process teaches me how to fly the drone to capture quality images,” he said.

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People who have been outside when Caughey is flying said the drone sounds like a swarm of bees. Once, he had to land the vehicle quickly because swallows were dive-bombing the aircraft.

Insuring the vehicle is also on the pioneering front. He worked with his insurance agent to find the right liability coverage policy which is required.

Caughey hopes to develop a multitude of commercial applications for drone use in this region. For more information on aerial photos and video and possible uses, call 218-234-9001.

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