Sky's the limit for grounded aviator and his drone army
A West Cork-based photographer has turned a hobby into a business that's about to take off, says Tom Prendeville
A CORK-BASED Hollywood motion picture photographer has plans to become the Michael O'Leary of a new billion-dollar sunrise industry.
Readers are familiar with the term military drones – small unmanned aircraft – from news reports. Only last week US President Barack Obama was loudly defending their use.
However, drones for civilian use – such as forest management, mountain and sea rescue, aerial photography, mapping and police work – are fast becoming a major new industry.
In 2009, Tomasz Firek set up a drone manufacturing facility in Skibbereen, Co Cork, and since then the innovative Irish company, Versadrones, has designed and built over 150 aircraft.
Typically, the remote control aircraft are fitted with onboard cameras – which act as the eyes of the operator on the ground – and can stay in the air for 30 minutes before they need to land for a lithium battery recharge.
The drones, which look like a cross between a helicopter and a UFO, are 4.5ft wide and have between four to eight rotor blades for stability.
The aircraft can carry a payload of up to 6kg and are equipped with a global positioning system (GPS). The operator can also pre-programme in GPS co-ordinates – this enables the craft to fly solo and then return to base afterwards.
The brains behind Versadrones, Thomasz Firek, is a true Renaissance man; he is also an economist, pilot, musician and inventor. However, up until the economic crash his day job was photography.
Speaking about his transition into the aviation business, Firek says: "The business grew from the photography; I just wanted to be able to share beautiful views with people.
"After the Celtic Tiger collapsed I was in a very difficult situation. At the time I was doing this aerial photography as a hobby, so I decided to try and turn it into a business. I got nothing in government grants, everything was based on a small amount of money I had.
"When I started four years ago there was no market for this, it did not exist. Then about two years ago drones appeared on the market and since then the growth has been crazy.
"I started making one or two a month; now it is 10 and sometimes more. So far we have made about 150 craft, all of which have been for export. I have clients all over the world, from Hollywood to Bollywood to universities."
Being a brand new industry meant that everything from the machines to fabricate the craft body to the individual component parts had to be created from scratch.
"Everything was developed by myself, so there was a lot of trial and error at first. In the factory, I make the moulds and used carbon fibre for the body, other specialised parts I have made abroad because I don't have time to make them here.
"The biggest drones cost €16,000 – they're computer-equipped and are controlled from a ground station. The drones have six onboard sensors which are analysed by the computer, to give additional stability," explains Firek.
Currently, aviation regulations governing unmanned aerial vehicles and systems, means that operators are restricted to flying no higher than 150m and no further out than 500m from the handheld control station.
Regardless, the restrictions don't seem to have had any detrimental effect on businesses who are queuing up to purchase the craft rather than spending thousands of euros on a one-off hire of a commercial helicopter.
'I have clients all over the world from Hollywood to Bollywood'
"I am too busy now for Hollywood movies, I am totally focussed on building drones. I think it is everybody's dream to turn their hobby into a business and in the future I will definitely be hiring people," added Firek.