A career set aside decades ago has paired with a longtime hobby to produce a new and timely business for a well-known, 71-year-old Hernando County resident.
As technology caught up with his pursuits, Jay Rowden has launched Drone Aerial Productions in which he, with assistance from his wife, County Commissioner Diane Rowden, produces aerial films with a camera-carrying drone.
"(It has) a whole variety of different applications, from real estate to agriculture and everything in between," he said.
Jay Rowden started piloting planes at age 13 — when he had to sit on a pillow to see out of the cockpit. He flew helicopters in the Army during the early 1960s over Korea and Vietnam.
"That's when I took up photography as a hobby and, lo and behold, it all fell together," he said.
The duo completed an intense three-day safety course in Atlanta before purchasing a drone. Jay Rowden, a former chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee, recently was certified as a drone operator by the Federal Aviation Administration, one of the first in Hernando County. Diane Rowden serves as an official visual observer during drone aerial pursuits, as FAA law requires.
The law's strictures are many and primarily for safety, he said. For instance, the observer must keep the craft within sight at all times "to keep me from running into utility poles," Rowden said. With his eye focused on the camera's viewing screen, "sometimes, you get so involved in the shot, you don't see the telephone pole."
Basic rules allow flying along an active road's perimeter but not over it. It is also forbidden to fly over crowds of people. "It's a machine, and a machine is subject to failure," he pointed out.
"If you're a responsible pilot, you don't do that. Rules are for a reason," including a no-fly restriction within five miles of an airport, he said. The craft also must be registered with the FAA and prominently carry its registration identification number.
In no way could the Rowdens' "his and her" drones be confused with general aviation aircraft. These drones are four-motor quadcopters, essentially aeromodelers' miniature helicopters with four whisper-soft, battery-driven propellers arranged at the corners of about an 18-inch square. Their cameras are gyroscope-stabilized via satellite.
At $1,500 each, these drones have two special features: a built-in switch so that if visual contact is lost, the copter will fly back home, and a setting that commands the copter to follow an operator on the move.
The copters weigh less than 5 pounds each and measure less than 3 feet across. "We actually have a drone hanger in the house; it's also called a guest bedroom," Rowden said.
Until receipt of his FAA license earlier this month allowing commercial application of the drones, the Rowdens have been experimenting, practicing and playing in Hernando County's airspace, resulting primarily in a video story they've titled "Awesome Hernando County."
"We actually go out and interview groups and do aerial shots of businesses," Rowden said.
In the video playing on awesomehernandocounty.com, profiles have included Spring Hill Central and Brooksville rotarians cleaning Weeki Wachee Springs, Marine Corps League's Toys for Tots program, homes by Habitat for Humanity of Hernando County and a number of businesses.
Rowden pointed out a particular clip that proved an agricultural use at a small fruit farm outside Brooksville. "We flew the drone over blackberry bushes and picked up an irregularity in the color of plants. ... The owner said they get low production there. ... I was able to draw a line on the picture, and he determined it was a very sandy patch. As a result, he was able to replant in a better area and get better production."
Rowden foresees a similar benefit to golf courses with the introduction of infrared and near-infrared photography that can reveal early stress on turf due to disease or too little or too much water. "This gives as much as a month heads-up on such needs," he said.
Drone aerial photography also is in demand by owners of cell towers. Each time a tower adds a customer, rules require the connection be verified by photograph and shared with all other tower users. Similarly, when birds build a nest on a tower, whether the nest is active must be determined. "A single tower inspection (by humans) can cost $5,000," Rowden said. "But you can fly a drone over, and those guys are being saved literally thousands of dollars."
The Rowdens have yet to finalize a fee scale for their aerial productions. They've given their practice videos free to the parties concerned. He estimates charges for raw footage will range from $150 to $200. Considerably more time and skill are involved in editing and putting together an advertisement, so that will be more costly, he said.
"It's not schlock," Rowden said of the output to date. "But I have to say, I'm a better photographer than a pilot, and I'm a pretty good pilot."
Diane Rowden, 61, retired as a flight attendant with Delta Airlines, is in the process of earning her own FAA certificate of operation. "A lot of hobbies cost a lot of (ongoing) money," such as golf, she pointed out. "Our cost is up-front. Now, it's our time. We're doing what we like."
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]