Hobbyist drones find eager buyers

Drones are showing up in this country in increasing numbers - and they could be coming to a neighborhood near you. While that prospect raises privacy concerns among some critics, for Colin Guinn it means business is taking off.

Guinn, 33, is North American CEO of DJI Innovations, which just might have the hottest hobbyist drone on the market. The China-based company's North American operations are headquartered in Austin.

The company's Phantom drone, which debuted in January, costs less than $700. The small four-rotor copter also is relatively easy to fly and to navigate. It weighs less than 1 { pounds without its , which typically is a small, rugged video camera. That is thousands of dollars less than larger remote-controlled copters, some of which are used in filming movies and TV shows.

DJI says it is selling thousands of Phantoms every week around the world, and North America is its largest market.

DJI's drones are engineered - and the navigation software is developed - in Shenzen, China. Guinn is a partner in the company and runs its North American operations in Austin, where DJI employs 20 people involved in marketing, sales, logistics, customer support, technical support and some engineering.

The drones typically are sold through hobby stores, and sales are going strong.

Austin-based Precision Camera, which began selling the Phantom less than two months ago, says it has sold about 50 of them already. About half the buyers, said store manager Gregg Burger, are hobbyists who want to fly a small vehicle that zips around and hovers in mid-air. Other buyers are camera enthusiasts who want to use the drone to help them shoot and videos. One customer uses the drone to shoot aerial videos of motocross events.

The Phantom is designed to carry a small and rugged sports camera, the popular GoPro Hero3.

One user of the drone and the GoPro camera is Shon Bollock, an adventure kayaker and filmmaker based in Northern California. Bollock said he expects to use the Phantom in his next film featuring kayaking and extreme sports in various parts of the world. The drone is small enough for Bollock to carry in a "dry bag" in his kayak and then launch for several minutes of aerial footage before he takes on a challenging set of rapids.

"DJI made something that is so compact and affordable that it is opening up whole new realms for aerial videos," Bollock said.

GoPro, which says it is the fastest-growing camera company, says the Phantom is a good match for its rugged lightweight Hero3 video camera, which sells for between $200 and $400, depending on the model.

"DJI makes a product that adds a lot of value to what you can do with a GoPro, and it is easy enough to fly," said Travis Pynn with GoPro's media team. "People are figuring out how to do some pretty amazing things with our cameras. Until fairly recently you had to be pretty skilled to fly one of these (drones) without crashing them."

The increasing number of drones is creating calls for more rules. Congress has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to create new rules for the commercial use of drones so that they don't conflict with air travel safety. Those rules are expected to be issued in 2015. Until then, the FAA's rules for hobbyists limit drones like the Phantom to flying below 400 feet and staying well away from airports.

Texas state Rep. Lance Gooden, a Republican, authored one of the first drone regulation laws in the nation that passed in the regular session of the legislature.

The law prohibits "indiscriminate surveillance" by drone without a warrant or use of it for malicious intent.

"If you are hobbyist and taking pictures," that is not a problem, Gooden said last week. "It is the folks who are doing indiscriminate surveillance or acting with malice that have something to be concerned about."

Guinn said he has no problem with laws that protect peoples' privacy against the malicious use of drones. He wants the Phantom to be used by hobbyists who want to experience the joy of flying and may use it to train their skills for even more complex and expensive drones for advanced camera work.

Unlike some military drones, the Phantom is not much of a stealth machine. Up close, it makes a buzzing noise that sounds like a weed whacker. When operating without a payload, the drone can fly for about 15 minutes or so without requiring a change of batteries. That time is decreased when the drone is carrying a camera.

There are cheaper drones available for sale to consumers, but Guinn said he considers them to be more toys than professional tools. The Phantom, he said, comes with advanced software that uses GPS technology and a magnetic compass to help interpret pilot instructions. It also remembers where it was launched. If the pilot transmitter goes dead, the drone automatically knows it should elevate to 60 feet and return to its launch site.

Guinn, who graduated from the University of Texas in 2003 with a mechanical engineering degree, got attracted to small remote-controlled helicopters as a way to get aerial footage as part of marketing upscale houses that were for sale.

He approached DJI Chief Executive Frank Wang with the idea of creating a stable camera mount for a remote-controlled helicopter. DJI was a leader in making intuitive software for piloting remote controlled vehicles. Then he convinced the company to develop its own line of remote-controlled copters that would be well-suited for shooting professional videos.

When he talked with Wang about forming a North American distributorship for the company, Guinn said, Wang invited him to be part of the company and head of its North American operations.

"Frank said, 'We have been working together for a couple of years, and we should just partner up, and you (Guinn) can open up the North American branch of DJI.' "

Guinn, who has some Hollywood connections, has helped introduce DJI technology to such filmmakers as J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay. Bay, he said, is having fun flying the Phantom on the set of the fourth "Transformers" movie, part of which is being shot in Central Texas. Actor Mark Wahlberg, who stars in the movie, saw Bay's drone and wanted one too, Guinn said.

Singer Jimmy Buffett is also a fan. Guinn said he took a camera-equipped Phantom to fly inside Buffet's new Margaritaville Casino and Restaurant in Las Vegas to shoot a promotional video.

Guinn says the Phantom was developed by DJI as an easy-to-fly, inexpensive trainer to attract a broader group of consumer hobbyists than just experienced remote-control pilots.

"We thought it would be our trainer for the aerial photographer and people will either get hooked on it or they won't," Guinn said. "We want to get everyone who uses a camera and who wonders what it would look like from 100 feet up or 200 feet up."

The plan was to use the Phantom as a way to bring in more buyers for the company's more sophisticated and expensive systems, some of which cost several thousand dollars each.

That is still part of the plan, but the Phantom has spurred more growth in the company's business, which led to the creation of a stable camera base or gimbal so that professional level videos could be shot with the small drone.

He predicts more commercial use for in such areas as law enforcement, agricultural crop monitoring, power line inspection and television news gathering.

The Austin operation has expanded from one person to 20 employees in the past year and Guinn says he has four more positions to be filled. The company has managed to keep up with sales growth of about 300 percent to 500 percent a year for the past few years, but it doesn't want to grow much faster than that, Guinn said.

"The biggest challenge for us is managing growth," he said. "That lets us find good people for engineering jobs and tech support and good sales people. We don't want explosive growth."

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