At Rotor Air Cam, hovering over the future

A Rotor drone surveys a solar panel project. High-res 3D mapping is coming soon.

By GREGORY ZELLER // Ask any enthusiast: One of the best parts of flying a drone is the maneuverability. The typical remote-piloted UAV – that’s unmanned aerial vehicle – can stop on a dime, hover to get its bearings and then take off in a completely different direction.

Much like the companies that fly them, actually.

When veteran pilot David Sanders combined his aeronautical and video-production skills and launched Plainview-based Rotor Air Cam in March, he envisioned a client base heavy into real estate and film – but a bird’s-eye market view quickly convinced the founder to alter his flight plan.

“We’re refocused on industry, as opposed to some of the other business models we considered first: real estate, marketing and cinematography,” Sanders said. “We’re focused on creating a business that solves business problems.”

Consider, for example, land surveys that could take weeks, “done in hours” with drone-based aerial imagery, or a 100-roof inspection that could take a month, “done in two days.” Labor-intensive 3D mapping can now be replaced by overlapped drone-generated images, Sanders noted, quickly and cheaply creating complex, photorealistic images.

According to Business Insider, Rotor Air Cam’s new itinerary is right on course. In its 2015 report on the global drone industry, BI divines that the global commercial- and civilian-drone market will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent between 2015 and 2020 while focusing chiefly on agriculture, energy, utility and mining industries.

(Yes, real estate and film production made the list, though BI ranks them lower.)

Further bolstering dronedom are pending FAA regulations that will effectively end many current restrictions on commercial drone flights – basically permitting all low-altitude flights of UAVs under 55 pounds within view of a ground-based pilot, with additional flexibility for “micro” UAVs under 5 pounds. The new regs should be approved this year.

That’s what Sanders – a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot who flew commercial choppers in New York and Hawaii – envisioned: friendly skies swarming with commercial drones, with a premium on experienced pilots.

After decades behind the stick, Sanders decided he wanted to do something “more creative” and detoured into professional video production. He cut his teeth shooting and editing corporate videos for Smith Barney and Citigroup, then in 2011 launched Ping Media, a Huntington-based producer of promotional and marketing content.

To date, Ping customers include the Melville advertising agency EGC Group and Mineola search-marketing firm Didit, with subcontracts on projects for Brother, Sterling Optical, Canon and other topflight clientele.

Sanders and his partners haven’t decided if they’ll fold Ping Media into Rotor Air Cam or continue operating Ping on the side, but “if a client wants to broaden their marketing piece while they’re engaging the drone company, we have the capability to do that,” he noted.

Rotor Air Cam has many capabilities, thanks to a management team rich with flight and business experience and critical contacts across multiple industries. Sanders is currently “banging out” pre-operating agreements with two new partners and has already welcomed the former chief pilot of defunct airline TWA as a key advisor.

Now boarding: Brian Walk, a New Jersey-based pilot who runs a “corporate pilot service for a high-net-worth individual,” according to Sanders, and will serve as the startup’s chief pilot and CTO.

Also signing on is Rob Mannino, founder of Plainview marketing firm Numax Media. Through Numax client Puls, a Pennsylvania-based “underground utility locator,” Mannino has critical connections within the gas and oil industries – an important advantage for Rotor Air Cam’s new veep of business development, Sanders noted.

“That’s our segue into developing strategic partnerships in the oil and gas arena,” he said. “You have aviation merging with surveys and inspections, and it will take partnerships between those different fields to make the right professional solution for the industry.

“Just showing up at an oil field with a drone isn’t good enough,” he added. “You really have to have a tested prototype solution that betters what’s already out there.”

Rounding out the Rotor Air Cam roster is Don Estes, a senior advisor boasting a background in finance – he was CFO for several Long Island businesses – plus his TWA experience and a stint running FAA-approved courses.

Estes brings “a 35,000-foot overview of what we’re doing,” according to Sanders, and while the remainder of the current Rotor Air Cam staff works on a freelance basis, the founder is looking to hire a CEO and additional pilots to beef up the team.

Operation of commercial drones in U.S. airspace requires FAA licensing, but an “FAA 333 exemption” – a designation that facilitates case-by-case federal licensing reviews – allows any pilot with FAA airman certification to be trained to fly drones. Sanders holds a 333 exemption, meaning Rotor Air Cam can dramatically widen its pilot-training talent pool.

Sanders plans to invest in new equipment as demand increases, but for now Rotor Air Cam operates just two drones, both produced by Chinese manufacturer DJI. The first is an older DJI Phantom used for training purposes, the second a next-generation DJI Inspire, a more professional platform with an advanced camera and multicontrollers that allow one person to handle the camera and another to fly the craft.

The Inspire is better suited for commercial operations, according to Sanders, who believes the ever-expanding capabilities of these “digital platforms” are the real power behind the drone industry. Whomever can master them, he said, will rule the commercial skies.

“Once we have some successful prototypes and case studies, we’ll make a strong argument for saving businesses money and giving them products that go beyond what they do,” Sanders noted. “We’ll be through the full prototyping stage by September, and then aggressively moving forward.

“The prototyping we’re doing now is not seeing if the drone flies,” he added. “It’s seeing if it creates a map to the right specifications, if it has the resolution clients need, if it does everything it needs to – and if not, seeing how it can be improved.”

Rotor Air Cam

What’s It? Site surveys, 3D mapping and other drone-based aerial imagery

Brought To You By: Founder, president and retired U.S. Marine David Sanders

All In: $25,000, including a $15,000 seed investment and Sanders’ personal stake, covering equipment and operating capital

Status: Skids up