MIDWAY — Standing beside South Elkhorn Creek with a remote-control device, Manfred Marotta uses joysticks and a video monitor to guide his small flying drone over and around a bridge, a waterfall and historic Weisenberger Mill.
The light is turning golden on this late-summer afternoon, and the tiny camera anchored to the drone’s belly captures stunning high-definition video.
Marotta is one of many people who think there is money to be made producing this kind of aerial imagery for a variety of clients, including utilities, real estate brokers, farmers, tourism promoters and news organizations.
But, so far, on-the-ground maneuvering with aviation regulators and government policy makers has been more complex than anything drone entrepreneurs face piloting their unmanned aircraft through the sky.
Marotta is chief executive of Versailles-based Unmanned Services Inc., which last month became the first Central Kentucky commercial drone operator to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Sky Drone Studios, owned by Lexington-based Post Time Productions, soon expects to get its FAA certification, known as a Section 333 Exemption, said Jeb Smith, one of the owners.
The field is likely to get more crowded, because of the growing popularity of relatively inexpensive drones and small video cameras. More than 1,300 FAA exemptions for commercial operators have been issued nationwide so far, including more than a dozen in Kentucky.
Aviation policy and privacy laws have struggled to keep up with drone technology, which has made big leaps thanks to military research and development investment during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Drones are limited to low-altitude flying, generally considered 400 feet or below. Ironically, though, commercial operators face far more FAA scrutiny than hobbyists, who usually have less skill and experience.
The FAA plans to announce new drone pilot training and certification rules in January. Currently, hobbyists flying small drones don’t need certification. But people flying drones commercially must have a civilian license to pilot manned aircraft.
Military drone pilot certification doesn’t count, although Unmanned Services has applied for an exemption until the new rules are issued. Until then, the company must hire a licensed pilot to do commercial jobs, but not free demonstrations.
Marotta, 35, said he spent five years flying drones in the Navy and another three as a government contractor. Chris Stiles, 30, president of Unmanned Services, said he has a decade of drone pilot experience, as a government contractor and before that flying Army drones for battlefield surveillance during two tours of duty in Iraq. They said that, combined, they have logged more than 7,500 hours of drone flight time.
Marotta and Stiles met while they were government contractors. They started their company in 2011 and moved two years later to Versailles, where Marotta grew up before moving to Pennsylvania. His father, Manfred Marotta, played football for the University of Kentucky in the early 1970s.
Their business partner, Weston Amos, is learning to fly drones, but has no military or commercial drone experience.
“For the past two years, we’ve spent a lot of time building up potential clients,” Marotta said. “In the past month, we’ve been able to go out and actually have customers.”
So far, Marotta said, they have done commercial jobs for real estate agents and a television station. A typical job costs clients between $150 and $500.
In addition to high-definition video, from which still images can be made, Unmanned Services’ cameras can do video downlinks for live television broadcast and infrared and thermal imaging, which are useful in utility line inspection, field and crop analysis for farmers and search-and-rescue operations.
Marotta thinks a big market can be developed in utility line inspection, which must be done annually.
“We don’t believe that the drone can take over the entire market,” he said. “But it can sure save them a lot of money and save them a lot of time rather than using manned aviation.”
The Unmanned Services partners also are spending a lot of time meeting with government policy makers to try to prevent legitimate concerns about safety and privacy from resulting in what they would consider bad laws and regulations.
“Talking to the right people and finding those right people has been a lot of our workload,” Marotta said. “We’re trying to protect the industry and ourselves.”
Demonstration video by Unmanned Services Inc.