March 23, 2014

Rock Hill entrepreneur has drone with video camera ready for takeoff

Rock Hill entrepreneur Terrice McClain has a home-built, high-tech drone equipped with a wi-fi Go Pro camera for photos and videos.

Terrice McClain of Rock Hill is motivated by “figuring out what someone else fears.” The result, he says, “is more freedom.”

In high school it meant mastering the personal computer rather than the easier-to-use Mac. There were lines of students waiting to use the Macs. No one wanted to tackle the PC. McClain did, opening the door for a career as a computer programmer.

Mastering the fear at home meant taking apart his electronic toys, studying them, trying to improve them and, hopefully, putting them back together.

His latest fear mastering is commercial drone technology, creating a visual marketing business called Sky Pros, which he hopes will thrive in the real estate, event planning and independent film markets.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration says that using drones for commercial purposes is illegal. That’s been the agency’s position since 2007. The FAA’s rules for drone operations date to 1981 and require operators to keep their craft in view, fly no higher than 400 feet and not fly over populated areas.

The agency is under pressure to change its rules. Just this month a federal judge dismissed the only fine the FAA has imposed on a commercial drone operator, saying the agency can’t enforce rules that don’t exist.

As the FAA moves at what it says is deliberate speed to write new regulations, entrepreneurs such as McClain are waiting for takeoff, ready to do everything from monitoring farmers’ fields and urban streets, to taking stunning videos and photographs, to delivering beer and dry cleaning.

The S.C. House has voted unanimously to restrict the public use of drones by law enforcement and government agency, a vote prompted by a invasion of privacy fears.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has called for the FAA to consider regulations for private use, such as rules covering the size of the drones, the qualifications of the operators and what uses are allowed.

“At first the regulations scared me,” McClain said. Now he’s working to make sure people are not scared of the regulations and understand what’s possible.

A visit to a Brookstone store in Philadelphia International Airport sparked his interest in drones. He saw an AR Drone that was controlled by an iPhone. “It was the coolest thing I ever saw,” he said. It was a Christmas gift in 2010 and he crashed the $300 drone so many times “I spent another $1,000 in parts.”

He became serious about the commercial possibility when he flew a drone with a Go Pro camera around a friend’s house. After seeing the video, the 37-year-old McClain started planning a business, Sky Pros.

He has business cards. He has a website, sky-pros.com. McClain even has a thought-out plan for drone use around people, telling clients he will need clear zones to operate and land his drone. He has gotten assistance from the small business center at Winthrop University.

Most importantly he has assembled a six-blade rotorcraft, a drone that is a combination of old-school skills and the latest high-tech controls. The star of the show, a Wi-Fi controlled Go Pro camera, is held in place with Velcro. Star-Wars like goggles allow him to see what he is filming.

The old-school skills were soldering. Almost every electric connection on the rotorcraft is soldered rather than clipped together.

On the high-tech side are a variety of small computer chips that control the rotorcraft’s flight and the speed of its carbon-fiber rotors, a GPS that helps stabilize the craft’s altitude as well as remember a “go home” location, and the gimbal that keeps the camera steady.

He wears Fat Shark goggles that allow him to see what he is filming. He made his first set of glasses, cannibalizing a set of 3D movie glasses, some electronics and a black ski mask. He still has the homemade rig but prefers the Fat Sharks.

The drone is flown with a controller familiar to those who fly radio-controlled planes. Usually when you move a lever right, the drone moves right. But when the craft is flying toward you, the controls are backwards, right is left and left is right.

McClain said operating the control has become almost second nature but he is taking no chances. Steady flight skills are essential to producing the videos people want to see. To keep his skills sharp, McClain flies daily.

The result, McClain said, is aerial cinematography that is a combination of art and science – and mastering fear.

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