A Cinematic Edge
Mid-Atlantic Drones, LLC sees job sites from a different point of view
Founded in 2017 by Mike Sobola and Luisa Winters, Mid-Atlantic Drones, LLC is not your typical aerial mapping company. With considerable manned aviation experience and a history in motion graphics and video production, Mike and Luisa bring a unique viewpoint to the application of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the construction space, in the way of safety, creativity and value.
In a short time, the company has built a reputation in the industry for its ability to develop and deliver cinematic-like drone footage that does more than help manage job site progress and calculate volumes—in many cases, it’s becoming a vehicle for improved operations.
From driving crane safety to providing model-comparable, measurable maps, these high-flying aviators are raising the bar to what’s possible with aerial data.
A Production Basis
In its early days, Mid-Atlantic Drones started as an aerial cinematography company, largely because of Mike and Luisa’s television and video production background.
Along with his private pilot experience, Mike has a degree in Radio, Television and Film from the University of Maryland and a Certificate in Filmmaking from New York University. He has written and produced shows for networks such as NBC, HBO and Discovery. He also worked as Lead Producer at Discovery, Inc.’s Travel Channel and served as Showrunner of the 26-part series “Techknowledge” for Discovery Science.
His combined aircraft and production experience translated easily to the UAV space. In fact, Mike has more than 700 hours of flight experience over multiple platforms and is certified for night drone operations, with a night flight drone waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). His experiences have helped him to develop a methodical planning and collaboration approach that gives him the skill and proficiency to capture aerial data and images safely and efficiently on construction sites.
Similarly, Luisa, also a certified private pilot, has been involved with video production and cinematography for over 30 years. She still serves as a consultant for networks such as NBC, CBS, Showtime, Fox News as well as Adobe. She holds an FAA night flight drone waiver as well as aviation certifications from the FAA and Unmanned Safety Institute, Inc. She’s also a certified instructor with the Unmanned Safety Institute and a Level 1 Certified Electrical Thermographer.
Of note, Mid-Atlantic Drones has also won four Emmy Awards from the Television Academy (two for production and two for drone projects), multiple Telly Awards, as well as local TIVA-DC production awards.
Both Mike and Luisa believe that their manned aviation and cinematography experience provides an added edge to every contractor.
Flight Paths and FRZs
Mid-Atlantic Drones is one of the few organizations with authorization to fly in Flight Restricted Zones (FRZs), such as the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area Flight Restricted Zone (DC-FRZ). The DC-FRZ encompasses the Washington, D.C., area as well as the suburbs (extending 15 miles in all directions from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington County, Virginia).
“One of the reasons we get these authorizations is our safety mentality that was embedded in our manned aviation history,” confirms Luisa. “As private pilots, we have a shared fate mentality, which reinforces a safety-first attitude in everything we do, and we understand airspace and FAA regulations.”
The documentation about how to fly and the mentality that is required to ensure safety is essential. That’s one of the primary reasons that owners and contractors hire the firm.
“Even in the most difficult of areas,” explains Mike, “we’ll still be able to deliver aerial imagery on a consistent and reliable basis. Our niche is the DC-FRZ. We’ve been flying these areas since the founding of the company.”
But where does cinematography provide value on a construction job? The answer is in the technical details.
The Mechanics of Mapping
The most important aerial data product for construction is likely the orthomosaic, a large, map-quality image with high detail and resolution made by combining many smaller images called orthophotos. What benefits does the orthomosaic provide to a construction site? How do they use them? While near every drone-based aerial mapping organization says they have it, not all digital maps are the same.
According to Mike and Luisa, there are several key components to a drone-enabled camera system: the camera sensor, the shutter type and the data management process. Mid-Atlantic Drones relies on a 1-inch sensor for improved image quality and larger pixels. Pixels absorb light, and the more light, the stronger the image signal. Bottom line, a larger sensor collects more light data and performs better than smaller sensors, especially in low-light situations.
A mechanical shutter is also important for mapping construction jobs, they say, and it’s a technology that few drones have. Luisa explains, “A mechanical shutter, versus the more common electronic shutter, prevents image distortion while the drone is in motion.”
Mapping an ongoing construction site requires planning. As the building progresses, sightlines become obscured, controller-drone communication can drop out and the onboard compass can get blocked.
Mike adds, “Even the most seasoned drone pilot must make adjustments when heavy machinery, swinging crane arms and steel erection takes place, as there are potential drone hazards around every turn. Flying a busy site with constantly moving heavy machinery and open hazards requires experience, concentration and a safety-first mentality.”
Finally, drone sensors gather an extraordinary amount of data that can be overwhelming. Turning data into useful information is essential to every good drone operator. Every aerial package from Mid-Atlantic Drones includes photos, videos and a high resolution orthomosaic, with relative precision of 5-10 meters.
Mike adds, “Our UAVs take 100s of photos and our software stitches together and corrects for anomalies, so one high-resolution image can provide data for the owner, contractor and trades. Customers can take very accurate measurements from our maps.”
While data is usually king in the construction space, cinematography extends the value of the gathered data.
Luisa and Mike believe that communicating via visual media requires some filmmaking knowledge, adding that many drone operators don’t think about different shots because they don’t have that creative mindset. They have worked on several high-profile projects in the Virginia, Washington D.C., Maryland region. Some of it is routine imagery to perform tasks such as earthwork volume calculations.
Others require a different viewpoint.
For instance, The Wilson and The Elm in Bethesda, a nearly one million-square-foot, mixed-use development, which includes an office tower (The Wilson) and two residential towers (The Elm), required a bit more cinematic expertise. For this project, Mid-Atlantic Drones filmed the sky bridge located 28 stories above the street and subsequent work on the bridge and buildings.
Luisa explains, “Most drone pilots have never worked with photography or communicated through visual media. It makes a difference to have someone with experience, not just for safety, but for communication. That is a differentiator for us.”
“Our maps are so accurate that our contractors use them to determine quantities of materials needed or to overlay plans to ensure construction feasibility,” adds Mike. “Customers regularly combine plans with the aerial imagery as part of the clash detection process. That’s the value of high-resolution orthomosaics.”
On one large development project, Mid-Atlantic Drones was hired to fly the site on a regular basis to track progress. Prior to one flight, the contractor requested images of the newly erected crane to facilitate a crane inspection. The images revealed a problem with the crane pulley at the top.
Mike adds, “Most drone operators can get these shots. However, beware the inexperienced drone operator flying close to a crane or other critical construction site equipment. One mistake could endanger the safety of everyone on the job.”
On one project in Manassas, Virginia, Mid-Atlantic Drones was contracted to fly twice-weekly progress and mapping missions. Mike and Luisa delivered precision maps that allowed the client to overlay their proposed design plans. During one of these comparisons, the client discovered that a near-future electrical line would be conflicting with an on-site drainage pond. The design team moved the line before the contractor started digging.
The 295-acre Potomac Yard/ Potomac Greens site located in Alexandria, Virginia, is another high-profile project that Luisa and Mike are working. Potomac Yard Development, LLC is developing a mixed-use development that includes 1.9 million square feet of office space, 135,000 square feet of retail (in addition to the existing 600,000-square-foot Potomac Yard Retail Center), and 1,700 residential units.
For Potomac Yards, Mid-Atlantic Drones was hired to take site images for construction progress, but also to show future vistas from specific heights and angles that approximated different floors on the finished project. Developing this type of imagery requires careful planning, a stable imaging platform and a creative eye, techniques that Mike and Luisa are especially familiar with.
An Extended Flight Path
While Mike and Luisa are sole employees of Mid-Atlantic Drones, the two do use a few freelance drone operators that they have trained and trust, as needed. The company largely focuses on helping owners and contractors in the Mid-Atlantic region, though they have done work for repeat customers in Nevada (Las Vegas), Texas and Illinois (Chicago).
When asked about the increasing number of drone divisions in construction firms, Mike and Luisa think it’s a sure sign of growing value of aerial imagery to contractors—but also point to the associated risks.
Mike says, “It’s really expensive to start a drone operation beyond the drones and sensors. The insurance, risk management, a safety manager and safety training take considerable time and money. Our value is that we get to know our clients and our jobs so we can anticipate problems—not simply react to them. We aren’t just flying the same shots each time. We know what to look for and what’s important to capture in a developing construction site.”
Luisa concludes, “We have experience, a high safety record and know-how to turn aerial data into valuable information very quickly and cost effectively so our customers can get back to their love, which is building.”