Here's a quick primer on drones: Imagine a miniature helicopter with four rotors instead of one, and a camera mounted on the bottom. A good consumer drone with some bells and whistles will run you more than $ 1,000, perfect for the amateur videographer. But aside from the occasional airborne Facebook video, there's not much you can do with it.
Current FAA regulations are pretty strict when it comes to unmanned vehicles. If you're a hobbyist, you're free to use them according to the model aircraft guidelines. That means away from populated areas, at least three miles from an airport, and under 400 feet. Commercial use is another story. It requires operating approval as well as aircraft and pilot certification. Operation over densely populated areas is currently prohibited, though it can be authorized on a case-by-case basis. According to the FAA, the only commercial use of drones was by energy company ConocoPhillips, which used four unmanned aerial drones to perform environmental surveys.
But Charles Easterling, CEO and co-founder of New Orleans-based Crescent Unmanned Systems, has a better idea for drones: Use them to save money--and lives-- while keeping everyone safe.
"When people heard the word 'drone,' especially during the ramping down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it evoked images of Hellfire missiles," Easterling says. Then "when Amazon announced they were interested in delivering packages with drones, I think that was the first time that people realized this technology has alternate uses." Easterling sees the future of unmanned vehicles dealing with more than delivering books or bombs. "There are some really great applications like delivering medicine to remote locations or using drones in the film industry."
Easterling isn't a robotics genius. He isn't even an engineer. "I went to Loyola for political science," he says. "But I've been a tech guy since I was a kid. I was a hacker. I taught myself how to program at the age of 14 back when it was FORTRAN and C++." That versatility shows in Crescent. The company, which is currently in talks with law enforcement agencies, offers two drones: both can be equipped with specialized cameras and sensors for whatever a situation requires.
Being a drone manufacturer is one thing. Being a black drone manufacturer is another. Easterling's journey was filled with people questioning his skills, even after impressing investors with his pitch. "I thought you were going to pitch some ethnic...