By Sam Wall
Often times when people hear the word “drone,” they think of spying and remote military strikes; however, the reality is that drones are primarily used for more practical and far less sinister purposes than those previously mentioned.
Autonomous Flight Technologies Inc., a company located in Salem, has been at the forefront of drone technology for years, and now has Federal Aviation
Administration exemption status, which allows them to use their unmanned aircrafts for commercial use.
According to owner and local resident Josh May, there are 2,300 other similar exemptions that have been granted throughout the United States, but most exemptions due not cover as broad of a spectrum as the one Autonomous Flight Technologies received, and the only other exemption in Southwest Virginia belongs to Virginia Tech.
So what exactly does this company do? Well, a lot.
“Our company focuses on a variety of different services research and development, photography and cinematography, UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) training, and search and rescue,” said May, who started his company in 2007, which at the time primarily focused on building and designing model aircrafts for local enthusiasts in the area.
These drones, which use GPS to fly autonomously, are equipped with state-of-the-art cameras that allow their operators to complete tasks from a computer or tablet screen. Not only are drones cheaper and more efficient than using helicopters for things such as surveying land and shooting aerial footage, they are also much safer for things like assessing a burning building for first responders or inspecting bridges and other manmade structures.
While May has been working with drone technology for quite sometime, it wasn’t something he has been able to pursue full time until recently. Federal legislation on commercial drone use has been put on the backburner since 2012, which pushed May to finally go ahead and apply for FAA exemption in June of 2014.
“I just couldn’t wait any longer,” said May. “We were losing a lot of business to companies in Europe, or people were moving there where they already had regulations in place.”
He and his company had to wait until early September of this year for their exemption to finally be granted, although he and his employees were not sitting by idly. Instead, they did a lot of work without charge as a way to get experience as well as getting their name out to perspective clients.
May and his two fulltime employees, Chris Moody and Paul Stoutamire, have worked in the area in various sectors allowing them to build relationships with potential clients long before they ever received their exemption status.
Moody and Stoutamire owned an aerial photography business before merging with Autonomous Flight Technologies, and May has owned and operated Countryside Classics, a specialty store in Salem, with his father for the last 25 years. May, who is leaving the store at the first of the year, said the decision was tough, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of what Forbes Magazine has said will be a $36 billion industry in 2016.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “This shop is near and dear to me, but this has always been my passion. We’ve got to strike while the iron is hot, and it couldn’t be any hotter.”
For more information about Autonomous Flight Technologies and the services they offer, go to http://www.autonomousflight.us.