Armed with a cheap motor, a flimsy flight controller and a subpar battery from Hobbyking — an online Chinese retailer — Toby Dilworth began toying with drones.
He piloted YouTube tutorials, but it took him two months to get his first drone into the sky.
Two years later, Dilworth, now 18 and an incoming University of Maryland freshman, has made a business out of what was once a passing hobby, entering an increasingly popular industry where recent federal regulations could open up the door to even more commercial drone users.
His business partners — his next door neighbor, certified flight instructor Greg Phelps, and Phelps' friend, Brent Rutley, a 55-year-old arborist — pooled their defined skills to launch a drone photography business to survey farming fields, conduct inspections and explore other uses.
Phelps collaborated with Dilworth when he saw the teenager fly a drone in his backyard. Phelps had just bought his first drone from the Mall in Columbia and had been playing around by inspecting his roof for broken shingles, instantly saw a business opportunity.
"Toby makes the drones. He's just a brilliant young man," Phelps said. "I've got the background in flight and inspections and Brent's got the agricultural side of things," he said. "If there's anything that you could call a team effort, it's this."
As their partnership takes off, the team has begun offering free drone runs for Maryland farmers to survey their fields.
"The sky is literally the limit," said Dilworth.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration released its first set of rules to allow the commercial use of small drones, a move that comes after years of lobbying by drone makers and tech companies and that could make it easier for drone operators to fly the small, unmanned aircraft into the county's carefully controlled skies.
New federal rules, which make it easier for businesses to fly drones, embody a new hope for drone operators who struggled to get permission to fly drones legally under previous guidelines.
For years, federal authorities have wrestled with how to tap into the economic benefits of the booming drone industry while safely integrating the aircraft into the airspace.
"Navigating through the FAA to get our exemption to do business has been a huge hassle. The new regulations streamline the process," said Phelps. "Especially for small businesses trying to get into the industry."
The rules allow businesses to use drones under 55 pounds with certain restrictions: The pilot operating the drone must pass a written test, can't fly drones over strangers and the drone cannot fly above 400 feet. Once the rules go into effect in August, some businesses will no longer have to apply for special exemptions to fly drones.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan wants to spend $1 million to install drone detection technology over two high-security Maryland prisons, the latest attempt to combat plots to airdrop contraband, which have become a nationwide problem.
"The skies have literally opened. The requirements are better defined and more opened to the general user," said Bill Davidson, CEO of UAV Solutions, a company in Howard County that provides unmanned systems for the public and private sector, including the U.S. Department of Defense. "Now, it's going to be on the users to operate these things responsibly. … How do you conduct business?
At UAV Solutions' 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Jessup, staff test a drone in a caged corner of the shop.
"We all started out as drone enthusiasts at some point. We're lucky enough to take a hobby and turn it into a business," said Davidson.
There are more registered drone owners in the United States than there are other kinds of aircraft owners. In Maryland, nearly 9,300 people are registered drone owners.
Although Howard's government and Police Department do not use the technology, drones glide atop roofs to inspect shingles, real estate brokers use them to take photos and they're the next logical innovation for farmers, who could use the machines to survey fields, Phelps said.
"I don't need to climb a tree to see if it's rotting. I can send a drone," he said. "I can chart a 50-acre piece of land's typography in 12 minutes. This technology just makes sense."
Jack Hardway, an Ellicott City resident, owns a small business that uses drones for aerial photography. The lucrativeness of drones is too good to pass up — even if it means "jumping through hoops left and right" to run a business, said Hardway, who spent much of his career in traditional aircraft shooting photos of Major League baseball, NASCAR races and Monday night football games.
Ten-year-old Eric Morris had already sent a 4-inch drone lurching into the air in a West Baltimore park Monday morning when instructor Austin Brown asked the students if anyone wanted to take the controls of a much larger aircraft.
In 2013, Hardway made the switch to drones by founding his company, Elevated Media Concepts. In addition to traditional video production, Hardway, a licensed pilot, uses drones for commercial real estate and surveying solar fields.
"Before, I got a pilot license so I could control the angles of my shots in these helicopters," said Hardway. "Now, I can drive up to my destination, plug my equipment in and be done in five or 10 minutes. It doesn't cost me $5,000. It costs me pennies to put that thing in the air. And that's it."
It's an industry that Columbia-based Skycomp, which monitors traffic flow on highways across the country, is hoping to tap into.
Greg Jordan, the company's president, is considering using drones in addition to the helicopters that roam the skies and collect data. The opportunity is too good to pass up, said Jordan.
"If I want to videotape an interchange, I can make a better quality video with a drone than I can using an expensive helicopter with a $100,000 piece to stabilize the camera equipment to get that low. It's breathtaking technology," said Jordan.
Despite the FAA's latest guidelines, a comprehensive layout of federal and state regulations remain up in the air, drone users said.
Hardway worries one local disaster — such as a drone being operated by a hobbyist falling into a crowd — could dramatically change the local conversation about the unmanned aircraft.
Part of the problem with federal guidelines is that drone hobbyists aren't subject to the same regulations as commercial drone operators, he said.
Howard County Times: Top stories Newsletter
Daily highlights from Howard County's number one source for local news.
"The irony is that as a hobbyist, there are really no limitations. Commercial drone operators are getting paid, so everything is different," said Hardway. "No one is getting prosecuted and no one is getting yelled at. They're opening up the skies. And each flight is equally dangerous."
The FAA unveils new landmark rules that make it easier to pilot an unmanned aircraft. George Solis reports.
"These aren't toys. We need to think about what happens if something goes wrong," said Hardway."Most of these guys aren't thinking about these things when they're going for that cool shot."
Phelps said it is a "no brainer" the FAA will revise their regulations again, especially a recent rule that limits flying drones if they're out of the user's line of sight.
"As the technology improves, safety will also improve," Phelps said. "Foreign countries have been spraying crops with drones for years. We have to catch up."
Many models fly beyond the operator's line of sight, running the risk of collisions with other aircraft. Despite its size, a drone could down a helicopter if it comes dangerously close to the helicopter's tail, said Jordan. Recently one of his helicopter pilots suspected a drone collided against his aircraft, leaving a trail of mark on the aircraft's body.
"What is a reasonable amount of acceptable risk for a new industry? Nobody knows. It's still brand new," said Jordan. "You can't get an airplane without a license. You have to know the rules of the road. The scary part about drones is that anybody can order a drone and shoot it up to 1,000 feet. Where is the enforcement?"