Drones are Everywhere! Here’s How They Affect Businesses, the Earth and Even You

Drones seem to have flown into the mainstream. Chances are you’ve watched a stunning video shot by a drone and seen—or heard—the devices while at an outdoor event, cruising at the beach, even outside your home. Maybe you got one as a gift. Let’s take a bird’s-eye look at how this hovering technology is affecting businesses, the environment and you personally.
Lanaʻi lookout drone shot
Lāna‘i Lookout.
Photo: Jonathan Morikawa


One late summer morning, Curt Cottrell and his daughter scaled the 1,048 railway ties up Koko Crater as the sun rose. It was a special hike, the last one before she headed to the Mainland for college. But they were jolted from their early morning reverie by a loud buzzing as they neared the summit. “I heard what sounded like a swarm of bees,” says Cottrell, who is the administrator of the Hawai‘i state parks division. As they got closer, he then thought it might be a weed whacker. It was neither. “There was one guy with a drone, maybe 30 to 40 feet above our heads at the top of Koko Crater. The whole ambiance of the sunrise was completely ruined by what was this loud buzzing of his drone. He was oblivious to the impact he had. And then he brought it down and it landed and everything got super quiet. Several people at the top, myself included went, ‘Oh, thank god.’”


Love them or loathe them, you’ve probably encountered a drone while out and about, and watched viral footage shot by drones—there’s just something about a 400-foot-high vantage point. Unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones, will add $82 billion to the U.S. economy by 2025, according to the drone trade’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The global drone market that year is estimated to balloon to $127 billion. The Federal Aviation Administration says there were 459,373 registered recreational drone users as of May 2016, including 3,234 in Hawai‘i. Drones do more than capture postcard-perfect footage (after all, the technology has its roots in military surveillance and warfare). The flying devices have been integrated into numerous industries, including movies, real estate, commercial development, package delivery, inspection services, agriculture and more. Government regulation has only recently caught up to the booming commercial market. This past June, the FAA released rules regulating drone use. Then, in late August, the federal agency relaxed those rules, nixing the requirement that users earn a pilot’s license to operate a drone commercially (see page 62 for drone regulations). Usage has skyrocketed—pun intended. Here’s how these devices are impacting local businesses, the environment and the local community. 


Drones beach shot
Waikīkī Beach.
Photo: John Garcia


Trying to Regulate a New Industry

As administrator of the state parks division, Cottrell manages 50 state parks encompassing roughly 30,000 acres. He says the division considered permitting recreational drone use but couldn’t establish an efficient process. Drones were then added to the list of prohibited items and activities in the park. The division does issue special-use drone permits to educational and community organizations, on a limited, case-by-case basis. So, when you see a drone buzzing over the Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse or above Kailua Beach Park, it’s most likely illegal.


“[Recreational users] don’t have the proper authorization, nor do they think it’s even required,” says Cottrell. “I think it’s just an unconscious attitude of, ‘Why should I not be able to fly a drone and get my pictures?’”


The state can fine violators up to $10,000, as well as charge them with a petty misdemeanor. But enforcement has been sporadic. According to the FAA, from November 2014 through January 2016, there were four reports of illegal drone use: two flying too close to aircraft—one on O‘ahu, one on Kaua‘i—a drone flying at 1,000 feet near Kaua‘i’s Wailua Falls and a nighttime flight during the July 4 fireworks show off Magic Island. None of these local incidents have resulted in enforcement action by the FAA. Honolulu Police Department spokesperson Sarah Yoro says HPD doesn’t track drone-related calls, so it doesn’t have data on public complaints or incidents. But search online for “Hawai‘i drone video,” and you’ll see dozens of uploads of drones flouting the rules. They’re flying too high, passing over crowds and operating in state parks.


Waʻahila Ridge
Wa‘ahila Ridge.
Photo: Jonathan Morikawa


Cottrell says one of the most filmed parks is the Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park, particularly the Kalalau Trail. On O‘ahu, Wa‘ahila Ridge State Recreation Area and the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline are most popular.


While the parks division isn’t allowing the remote-controlled devices, another state agency is engaging the new technology head on, albeit cautiously. Every commercial drone user wanting to capture the Islands from above must first go through Donne Dawson, the state film commissioner for the Hawai‘i State Film Office. She says her office first started getting calls and requests for drone film permits in summer 2015. “Today,” she says, “not a day goes by when I don’t talk about drones.”


Dawson says it’s been challenging trying to assimilate commercial drone regulations into the state’s existing 30-plus-year-old film permitting process with a primary staff of three. Last year, the film office received one or two commercial drone film permit requests each week. But the office approved fewer than 10 of those permit requests, she says. Dawson says she knows drones make it easier and cheaper to get quality aerial footage and, while she doesn’t want her office to be obstructionist, “We have to weigh the request for the place that’s being requested and the context that it’s being requested in.” To receive approval, commercial drone operators must have proof of FAA certification and insurance. Some locations close to military bases, airports and public events won’t be approved if applicants don’t have proper waivers. And, unless filmmakers are shooting a documentary or educational film and have permission from cultural practitioners, Dawson rejects requests to film at cultural sites. “Cultural sites need to be protected,” she says. “We have to ensure that public access and public safety are preserved and that the natural resources are not damaged before our state agencies are going to approve these requests.”


“It’s one thing to fly over Kalalau and get the cool cliffs, but it’s another thing to fly over the burial quadrant at ‘Iolani Palace and look down upon the iwi,” adds Cottrell, who coordinates with Dawson’s office for film permits on state park land. “Someone with traditional cultural values may find it highly offensive.”


“It’s one thing to fly over Kalalau and get (video footage of) the cool cliffs, but it’s another thing to fly over the burial quadrant at ‘Iolani Palace and look down upon the iwi.”—Curt Cottrell


Flying Smart

Not every drone user has a catch-me-if-you-can mentality when it comes to following state and federal rules, says Mike Elliott. Elliott owns Drone Services Hawai‘i, a full-service drone shop operating out of the front corner of Battery Bill’s on Dillingham Boulevard. The retired Navy officer partnered with his wife, Ellen, and friend George Purdy and opened in December 2014. Elliott says the FAA’s rule change making it easier for drone operators to get commercially certified has not only increased his business, but overall industry awareness. He says Drone Services Hawai‘i sells 40 to 50 drones each month, ranging from lower-end models for $699 to large commercial drones for $5,000 and up. “We’ve seen a change in attitude, and a part of that has been our consistency in talking to people about safe and legal operation,” he adds.


Another drone expert, Aaron Begle, agrees. Begle is director of operations for the World Drone Academy Hawai‘i, which has a shared space in the Mānoa Innovation Center, a high-tech incubator. The academy teaches drone newbies how to fly a drone, navigate the regulations, get FAA certified, even how to edit aerial drone footage. The academy has 13 to 15 part-time instructors, and classes are held about once a week. Business has been booming, says Begle, especially now that users can become commercially certified without having to get a private pilot’s license, which can cost more than $10,000. “Before the FAA changed its law, we saw maybe three or four [people] a month that would come through to get their commercial license,” he says. “We [now] have about 20 to 30 people a month going through the program.”


Waialua Sunflower fields drone shot
Waialua Sunflower Fields.
Photo: John Garcia


Begle says the academy encourages all users, even hobbyists, to get insurance. (Insurance ranges from $2,500 to $4,000 annually. There’s even a mobile app called Verifly that offers users on-demand insurance for $10 to $25 an hour.) “Of course, the drones themselves have good safety features built in,” says Begle, “but, every time you put the drone up in the air, you never know.” 


Local drone users have made national news. In April 2015, a drone operator was chased and tased by a ranger at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park—drone flying is illegal in U.S. national parks—when he tried to get video footage of the lava lake at Halema‘uma‘u Crater. Later that year, a Kailua man briefly launched his drone near President Barack Obama’s motorcade during the first family’s December visit, before being immediately reprimanded by the Secret Service and ordered to land his device.


To help educate the public on drone safety, and ease concerns, Begle says the academy staffs a booth at various events each month. “There’s kind of a lack of education, a lack of knowledge of what drones are,” he says. “There’s also a big backlash because of the way Hollywood and the government built drones up. When the American public first started hearing about drones, they were being used to bomb overseas and to spy on people.” The Indiana native says Hawai‘i residents are generally more open to drone use. “When I’d show people drone footage [in Indiana], they’d think I’d want to use [my drone] for spying,” he says. “I don’t really get that here.”


Begle and Elliott say they also try to lead by example. Both are also commercial operators, and shoot drone videos for clients and for themselves. Begle says one of his favorite places to shoot is Hālona Blowhole. Drone Services Hawai‘i has done commercial work for the Howard Hughes Corp., Coldwell Banker Pacific Properties, ‘Iolani Palace and others. Elliott says he hopes government agencies will become more proactive in working with the drone community. “When you have an industry forecast to be a multibillion-dollar industry in just a few years, and it’s already growing in that direction, that is a powerful voice,” he says.


“I refer to drones as tools. It’s not much different from a construction company using a nail gun or a circular saw.”—Mike Elliott


Drones Doing Good

For some people, using a drone is about workplace innovation. The unmanned aircraft technology has proven useful in a number of industries, helping employees do their jobs better, faster and more safely. 


Trae Menard began looking into drones about two years ago. Menard, based on Kaua‘i, is the director of forest conservation for the Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i. “The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i works in remote, rugged areas,” he says. “It boiled down to safety, efficiency and cost effectiveness.” Today, the environmental nonprofit owns three drones, and certain staff have been trained and FAA-certified to use them in conservation districts on Kaua‘i, Maui, Moloka‘i and Hawai‘i Island. The staff uses the drones to survey land, ensuring that fences built to keep out pigs and goats remain intact, and monitor for invasive species growth. “Most of the work that we’re doing, we were using helicopters, and we still use helicopters,” says Menard, adding that the organization uses them for transporting staff and fencing materials and aerial surveying. “But helicopters, on average, cost between $700 and $1,200 an hour to fly. We were spending a considerable amount of money doing that. And, in some places, if we wanted to have someone walk maybe 500 meters to go check a fence line to make sure it was in good shape, in some of the areas that we work in, that could take three hours.” Now, instead of spending the day hiking along fence lines looking for puka, a staff member just has to hike out to a clear spot to launch a drone. They can then watch live video from the remote control, or via their attached smartphone, as the drone zooms past. 


Chinaman's hat
Mokoli‘i, or Chinaman’s Hat.
Photo: Jimmy Wilkinson


The state’s largest energy provider also saw the benefit of remote-control aircraft in its day-to-day operations. This past September, Hawaiian Electric Co. began using drones to inspect poles, towers and power lines and aid in repairs when the power went down. Elliott says Drone Services Hawai‘i also has contracted with companies to do inspection work. This past fall, the company signed on to do drone-powered inspections of the Kaimukī-based solar cleaning and maintenance company, Pacific Panel Cleaners. “When I talk to people about utilization of drones in business, I refer to them as tools. It’s not much different from a construction company using a nail gun or a circular saw,” he says. “These systems aid in expediency of work.”


Local experts predict more businesses will incorporate drones into their work, and new businesses will be created around the technology. “There are so many uses that no one has even thought of yet,” says Begle. “But we’re going to see them within the next two years or so, because the technology behind drones is just advancing so rapidly.”


Drone shot of beach
Kaiser Bowls.
Photo: John Garcia


For now, the feel-like-you’re-flying thrill of aerial photography is the most popular drone application, even for those wary of the technology’s increased impacts. Menard says, for the Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, what started out as devices to help them manage conservation districts across the Islands, in the end, made its work more transparent and relatable. “The quality of the video we were getting was so good,” he says. “It [became] something we could then provide to foundations, communities, our stakeholders, folks that normally would never get the chance to go up into the forest. We can take [footage of] what we’re doing in the forest and bring it to the people.”


Just remember: Be responsible and courteous when trying to shoot that sunrise.



What are UAS?

Illustrations: Kelsey Ige

Drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, as the Federal Aviation Administration calls them, are remote-controlled airborne devices. Some drones can fit in the palm of your hand while others, such as some of the devices the Hawaiian Electric Co. began using, weigh around seven pounds. Drones range in price from $50 to more than $30,000.


By the Numbers 


Number of registered recreational drone users in the U.S. as of May 2016


Number of registered recreational drone users in Hawai‘i as of May 2016


Number of drones registered for commercial use in Hawai‘i as of May 2016

$82 billion

U.S. economic drone forecast by 2025

$127 billion

Projected global drone market by 2020


Sources: Federal Aviation Administration, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and PricewaterhouseCoopers


The Rules of Drone Flying

  • All drone users—recreational and commercial—must register their devices with the Federal Aviation Administration. 

  • Drones must weigh less than 55 pounds.

  • Users can only fly during daylight, at a maximum speed of 100 mph, and 400 feet high or below. 

  • Users must keep their drones in sight when flying. 

  • Users cannot fly drones over people. 

  • Users must yield to manned aircraft, and cannot fly within 5 miles of any airport. 

  • Users cannot operate a drone from a moving vehicle or aircraft. 

  • Commercial users must be at least 16 years old. 

  • Commercial operators must be certified with the FAA’s remote pilot airman certificate. 

(Some of these rules can be waived, subject to approval by the FAA.)


Source: Federal Aviation Administration


So what happens if a drone pops up outside your bedroom window? Can you whack it?

HouseConfronted with a trespassing, invasive drone, you might want to chuck a baseball at it, or worse. We don’t blame you. But the Honolulu Police Department recommends that you put down the weapons of mass destruction. “If someone has a concern, they can call 911 and an officer will be sent to their location. The case could possibly be classified as an invasion of privacy, depending on the circumstances,” says HPD spokesperson Sarah Yoro. Of course, ideally the drone operator should ask permission first. Aaron Begle of World Drone Academy tells operators going to shoot real estate photography, or even just aerial footage near a house, to talk to homeowners beforehand. “Just so no one thinks they’re being spied on.”



Check out what these drone photographers are capturing:

Local Instagrammers are bringing a bird’s-eye view of Hawai‘i to the world. Here are a few of our favorites:



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