Connecticut drone operator takes off with two recent acquisitions | Crain's Connecticut

Connecticut drone operator takes off with two recent acquisitions

PhotoFlight Aerial Media shot this image of the Hartford skyline using a drone. | Courtesy of PhotoFlight Aerial Media

In the wake of two key acquisitions and significant contracts, a Connecticut-based drone operator and video producer is banking on further expansion. 

Manchester-based PhotoFlight Aerial Media acquired Stribog Media LLC (operating as Notadrone.com) and 500 Feet Drones LLC in early March for undisclosed terms. Meanwhile, West Hartford-based NBC Connecticut/WVIT recently signed a contract to make PhotoFlight its formal unmanned aerial vehicles department, PhotoFlight executives said.

“We’re experiencing substantial organic growth," said CEO Mike Gearin. "The acquisitions will help us with our services within the state but what this is really about is providing broader services to local business communities here and nationally.”

Sam Fingold, founder and CEO of 500 Feet Drones, characterized his company’s joining PhotoFlight as a “disruptive move that greatly accelerates our national platform and how we improve the value to our clients nationwide.”

NBC Connecticut first used drone imagery supplied by PhotoFlight last October, according to Susan Tully, the TV station’s president and general manager. She said PhotoFlight has continued to provide a variety of images including weather video.

“They’re the drone experts in Connecticut,” Tully said.

PhotoFlight was also recently named the preferred aerial media vendor for the Hartford Yard Goats baseball team, which plans to play its first season in construction-delay-plagued Dunkin Donuts Park beginning April 13.

PhotoFlight executives declined to give figures for revenue and profits or numbers of employees, citing competitive concerns.

Founded in late 2014, the company provides drone-recorded pictorial services for film and video production companies; surveying, three-dimensional modeling and progression analysis for architectural, construction and engineering firms; video and still photos for insurance companies, to be used for claims adjustment, structural inspections and underwriting; and video for real estate and other marketing purposes.

One example is a 1 minute, 43-second commercial property video of downtown Hartford that was commissioned by One Financial Plaza/Talcott Realty Investors, Coldwell Banker Real Estate New England. PhotoFlight used a a two operator drone configuration and tracking call-out labels to highlight key roadways and well-known nearby amenities, including the Connecticut Science Center.

Drones have substantially changed real estate marketing thanks to their quality of video and still photos, said Mark Pires, a New Canaan-based Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent who has used drone images for five years in marketing commercial and residential property.

“The effect is tremendous,” he said. “It’s like going to the cinema. I can produce it myself and it’s affordable.”

For example, he cited a house in New Canaan that had sat on the market for five years before Pires took a drone photo from a height of 20 feet. In 32 days, he said, that home was sold at 99 percent of its asking price after.

“You have to an eye for it,” Pires said. “There is something of an art to it. But if you take the right shot then customers want to see a lot more.”

Even though some insurers, including Hartford-based Hartford Steam Boiler and Travelers Cos. have started their own drone divisions, PhotoFlight Aerial Media executives say their company has something special to offer—lots of expertise in the numerous and detailed FAA rules.

“What we offer is very unique,” Chief Operating Officer Weiner said. “Clients can take advantage of our services without incurring liability.”

The FAA rules are “complex” and evolving privacy concerns are “very uncertain and very complex,” said Tom Karol, Washington-based general counsel/federal at the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.

“Where you want to use these (drones) brings with it a lot of questions,” Karol said.

Insurers are still powerfully attracted to drones with the technology being used increasingly in beforehand underwriting decisions as well as after-the-fact inspection of damage caused by natural disasters, fires and auto accidents, he said. And in its aerospace forecast for fiscal years 2017 through 2017, the FAA predicted that the insurance industry would be among the top five users of drones by 2020.

Whether insurers choose to outsource drone technology or bring it in-house, drone photography and video offer significant savings in man hours and improved safety, said Gerry Finley, senior casualty treaty underwriter at Munich Re America Inc., parent company of Hartford Steam Boiler. HSB runs its own drone program through its Professional Loss Control unit.

"[Drone imaging] can help insurers achieve desired outcomes in [a] more cost-efficient and safer manner than might otherwise be the case specifically in the areas of pre-loss risk assessment and post-loss damage assessment,” Finley said in an email.

The growing list of assignments for drones include crop insurance (inspecting and analyzing the condition of crops), volume verification and flood risk assessment, and energy audits, he said.

Gearin and Weiner say PhotoFlight Aerial Media has the experience to meet a variety of assignments and challenges. They note that after Travelers, PhotoFlight was the second company in Connecticut to receive permission to use drones back when FAA regulations were stricter. Meanwhile, they say, remaining tech-savvy is critical.

“It’s important to keep on top of the technology,” Gearin said. “We do this every day. People want to be able to trust their provider.”

March 30, 2017 - 5:23pm