Startup drone firm hopes to stand out with 3D modeling, thermal imaging
More construction-related businesses are flying drones every day, but not every owner is eager to spend the money to put employees behind the controls.
Indeed, many small engineering firms and real estate developers still prefer to hire drone experts for aerial photos and videos as they design new building projects or look to market completed construction sites.
The upfront cost — from pilot licensing and insurance coverage to drones that can run tens of thousands of dollars apiece — can be daunting for smaller companies.
But it creates partnership opportunities for drone-service companies like Silver Spring Township-based Aerial Content Group LLC.
Nonetheless, as drones gain wider acceptance, especially in commercial construction, third-party drone operators know they need to offer unique services to stand out as the airspace fills with competition.
Aerial Content Group owners Albert Sarvis and Jason Minick, who started flying for engineers this spring, are betting that their firm’s 3D modeling and thermal-imaging capabilities will help them soar past other drone competitors.
Developers can use the 3D modeling service — where hundreds or even thousands of aerial images are stitched together through computer software — to help them lay out a building site. Thermal imaging may uncover problems such as water and air leaks in an existing building.
“We want to help people make business decisions,” said Sarvis, the company’s lead pilot and imagery analyst.
Sarvis, who also is the director of geospatial technology at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, has worked with dozens of state and local governments, as well as commercial organizations, to build custom map-based business solutions.
Minick is a former newspaper photographer who now runs a commercial photography business.
As Aerial Content Group, they fly sites together for commercial clients. Sarvis pilots the drone while Minick controls the onboard camera.
They have been hired by engineers who need to monitor material stockpiles in local quarries. They have flown construction sites at every stage from raw land to completion of a building.
And they see potential to fly on behalf of state research projects. Sarvis has done some already through the university to help the Department of Environmental Protection create digital maps of abandoned underground coal mines in Pennsylvania.
With health care and university clients such as Geisinger Holy Spirit and Gettysburg College on his roster, Minick said he also sees opportunities to use the new company for aerial photography and video work to help with marketing and public relations projects.
“The beauty is that on the front end they can help influence the way you develop a project. On the back end, the materials can be used for marketing,” said Mayur Patel of Laughner Patel Developers.
The Dauphin County-based developer is currently building a medical campus along Roosevelt Avenue in Manchester Township. The project is across the street from the new UPMC Pinnacle Memorial Hospital, which is under construction.
Ahead of construction this year, Laughner Patel hired Aerial Content Group to fly the site and produce a 3D model of the images it collected. The final product, Patel said, helped not only with building and parking placement on the site, but also the design of access roads in and out of the development.
“It helped with sight lines and being able to ascertain how a building would be viewed from various points,” Patel said.
Hiring Sarvis and Minick has helped save time and money for his small development company, Patel said. Their photography and modeling work directly supports the firms that are designing the project, allowing him to make quicker decisions about construction.
The new drone venture also opens up internship and job placement potential for HU students, Sarvis and Minick said.
In his role as a full-time professor, Sarvis already has geospatial technology students that fly drones, including some licensed pilots who handle tasks like farmland inspections.
He believes Aerial Content Group could serve as a way to get more students real-world experience. The new career path for students also could help the business expand its reach outside of Central Pennsylvania and potentially add new services.
Currently, the drone company is a part-time job for both men. But Sarvis, 49, and Minick, 47, see it as a bigger part of their future.
“We think this is bigger than just the two of us,” Minick said.
HU President Eric Darr, who encouraged Sarvis to start the business, also sees plenty of room to grow the drone company.
He believes the company could help the university land more research work for students and potentially expand HU’s corporate donor base.
“Having clients through his business creates other opportunities for students,” Darr said. “Other data sets could be available to students and it would be nice if corporate clients would feel the need to donate to the university.”
The majority of HU students receive scholarships, but most of the funding for tuition is covered by the university. Darr is hoping to see private donations grow as the university continues to boost enrollment.
HU is expecting to bring in about 220 first-year students this fall, its largest incoming class of undergraduates.
“We’re encouraging faculty to think entrepreneurially,” Darr said. “If that means forming a business, I think that’s a good thing.”