2015-05-29 / Front Page

First in flight

Local business lands state’s first commercial ‘drone’ license
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Bill Lord, left, and Don Johnson, partners in Maine HDTV, which they bill as “Maine’s sky cam,” review footage shot from a drone they use to create aerial videos of properties for area real estate agencies. The pair recently received Maine’s first commercial license for use of an unmanned aircraft system. (Duke Harrington photo) Bill Lord, left, and Don Johnson, partners in Maine HDTV, which they bill as “Maine’s sky cam,” review footage shot from a drone they use to create aerial videos of properties for area real estate agencies. The pair recently received Maine’s first commercial license for use of an unmanned aircraft system. (Duke Harrington photo) CAPE PORPOISE — As four plastic blades spun to life, Bill Lord gave a final check of the GPS coordinates on the iPad mini in his hands. Then, manipulating twin levers on the attached control unit, he ordered the drone to lift. It jumped off the ground with a start, hovered for a moment, then rose quickly to its maximum ceiling of 95 feet, looking for all the world like a cross between a helicopter and a toaster oven with a camera strapped to its belly.

Then, with a deft flick of the wrist, Lord sent the drone humming above the marsh behind his Cape Porpoise home, where it executed each autonomous turn to perfection, sending back streaming video of its flight across a secure WiFi connection as clear and as steady as any a motion picture director might hope for.


The Amtrak Downeaster passes Kennebunk Station in a still from footage shot last fall by an unmanned aircraft system owned and operated by Maine HDTV. (Courtesy photo) The Amtrak Downeaster passes Kennebunk Station in a still from footage shot last fall by an unmanned aircraft system owned and operated by Maine HDTV. (Courtesy photo) As he watched the drone run its course, Lord, although 77, could have easily passed by the grin on his face for a teenager with a new toy. Except for one thing, this $1,000-plus drone is no toy. Oh, and another thing —

“We don’t call it a ‘drone,’” said Lord. “We don’t really like that word.”

“That’s because ‘drone’ has become associated with killing, as in ‘military drone,’” said Lord’s business partner, Don Johnson.


Bill Lord, left, and Don Johnson, partners in Maine HDTV, which recently received Maine’s first commercial drone license from the FAA, prepare to launch the unmanned aircraft system used by their company to shoot video of homes for area real estate agencies. Right, Kennebunkport’s Dock Square is seen from footage shot by an unmanned aerial vehicle owned and operated by Maine HDTV. (Duke Harrington photo/Courtesy photo) Bill Lord, left, and Don Johnson, partners in Maine HDTV, which recently received Maine’s first commercial drone license from the FAA, prepare to launch the unmanned aircraft system used by their company to shoot video of homes for area real estate agencies. Right, Kennebunkport’s Dock Square is seen from footage shot by an unmanned aerial vehicle owned and operated by Maine HDTV. (Duke Harrington photo/Courtesy photo) The preferred phrase is “unmanned aircraft system,” or UAS. And while UAS may not have quite the ring of UFO, it is the term used in the May 5 exemption from normal aviation rules granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to Maine HDTV, the company owned by Lord and Johnson. Billed as “Maine’s sky cam,” Maine HDTV shoots aerial video of homes for area real estate agencies, as well as private sellers.

The airworthiness certification granted by the FAA is believed to be the first issued in Maine for a UAS.

“Lots of people are operating under the radar, so to speak, but we may be the first in the state with a certificate of approval to fly commercially from the FAA,” said Lord. “We’re certainly the first in York County.”

Because the FAA does not yet have rules for UAS machines, Maine HDTV had to undergo a three-month process of obtaining a series of exemptions that may appear comical. For example, Lord and Johnson’s UAS did get an aircraft registration number, but they do not have to display it on the side of their drone in the usually-mandated 12-inch-tall letters. That’s important considering the Maine DHTV drone is only about a foot wide, while the main body is less than 8 inches tall. Also, perhaps because the UAS does not have a pilot, it is not required to carry a logbook on board.

“They’re really just beginning to learn what they’re supposed to do,” said Lord of the FAA office in Portland, which recently hired three people to deal with requests similar to that of Maine HDTV across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

According to Lord, the FAA certifi- cation helps to “legitimatize” Maine HDTV. But still, there’s that inescapable word — “drone.”

As retired media producers, Lord and Johnson certainly know the power of words.

Lord spent 33 years at ABC News where, among other jobs, he served as executive producer for Nightline with Ted Koppel, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and Good Morning America. He followed that up with 14 years as a professor of multimedia publishing at Boston University.

Johnson, who lives in Biddeford Pool, is a four-time Emmy award-winning cinematographer with more than three decades of field experience, including for WSB-TV in Atlanta. Considering that work included capturing news footage while hanging half outside of a helicopter, trying to hold a camera steady before the invention of lens gyroscopes, Johnson’s enthusiasm for his latest venture takes on special prominence.

“It’s fun to fly these things,” he says with a wide grin. “It’s the funnest work I’ve done in my life, by far.”

Of course, it’s Lord who lays claim to the actual flying, thanks to his pilot’s license. That’s not required to operate a UAS, just to call dibs on the controls at Maine HDTV. Johnson, meanwhile, acts as spotter. The FAA license requires that a second person maintain visual contact with the UAS at all times, and that can be harder than it might seem at first glance.

Just flying it can be tricky. How diffi- cult is a UAS to operate?

“Well, the first day we had it, we ran it into a tree,” answered Johnson, with a laugh.

The drone had to be sent back to the California manufacturer to be repaired after that first flight, about a year ago. Maine HDTV is on its second drone since then, the newest UAS equipped with the latest software that prevents it from flying too high, or too close to airports and other secure infrastructure.

Lord and Johnson first met as part of social group of ex-media types. Lord, a Saco native, has lived in Kennebunkport for more than 20 years. Johnson retired to Maine in 2007 at the urging of his wife, after many years of vacationing in the Pine Tree State. After striking up a conversation in the media group, and vowing to help each other on various video projects they each were still involved in, Lord came up with the idea of buying a drone.

Using the UAS to shoot real estate video helps Lord keep his hand in production, a vocation in which he keeps active “because I can’t stop today, even in my retirement years.”

But it’s also exciting, he and Johnson say, to be at the forefront of a new industry. Apart from the proposed use of drones for deliveries from Amazon and FedEx, Lord says he expects the tool to soon become as ubiquitous to fire and rescue departments as automated defibrillators and thermal cameras have become in recent years.

In fact, as part of Maine HDTV’s FAA exception, the company has to put in a set number of hours for community service. Just two weeks ago, Lord and Johnson gave a presentation of their UAS to local fire departments, offering it up for search and rescue missions. It can be particularly useful in operations around local islands, saving rescuers time, and towns money.

But, back to that word — drone — and the fear that accompanies any new technology, especially one so closely associated with killing and spying. While waiting for their FAA exception to come through, Lord and Johnson testified at the statehouse in Augusta against a bill that would have made it illegal to fly over a landowner’s property without express permission.

Lord called that bill “selectively discriminatory against new technology,” noting that no other aircraft is restricted that way by the FAA, which controls all U.S. airspace, even inches over private property.

That bill eventually died in committee April 7 with a unanimous “ought not to pass” recommendation.

Still, Lord and Johnson say it’s an uphill battle to combat the reputation drones have become saddled with. Although they’ve had no troubles as of yet — they’re careful to always advise abutting landowners whenever they shoot a new video — they recognize fear of drones exists for a variety of reasons, real and imagined. The defeated legislative bill, for example, was reportedly the product of a farmer who did not want a neighbor knowing what was growing that year for crops.

“My sense is that there are people in any technology-related business who will abuse it,” Lord said. “There are some who fly crazy, and they give it a bad name. It’s like the Internet. It’s a great tool, however a lot of bad things happen on the Internet.

“This is an example of some technology needing regulation without clamping down too fiercely, because people have a right to fly in the national airspace,” Lord said.

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