Last spring, Augusta photographer Thomas-john Veilleux was betting big on the role that unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, could play in his business.

When Veilleux spoke to the Kennebec Journal in April, he’d just received his commercial drone operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration after a half-year wait. He’d also acquired at least one quad-copter drone at a cost of $1,300 and was making plans to use it for some pro bono work during the early summer.

Flash-forward eight months, and no matter what pun you use to describe it – taking flight, getting off the ground, achieving lift off – aerial photography is playing a greater role in Veilleux’s work.

His fleet has grown to four. He has shot senior photographs, wedding parties, real estate and construction projects using the remote-controlled aircraft. And he drives a white Jeep prominently advertising his drone services under their new name, Maine UAV.

“I think I’ve found my niche,” Veilleux said, adding that about 75 percent of his drone work has been for real estate companies needing aerial views of homes.

The growth of Veilleux’s own operation has mirrored ongoing growth across the drone industry.


It’s now easier than ever for people wanting to fly drones for commercial ends to do so, whether to photograph football games, inspect power lines or monitor blueberry crops. Last year, when Veilleux decided to get into commercial drone photography, he had to apply for a special permit from the FAA. About 5,500 of those licenses have been issued since 2014.

But in late August, the FAA created a new, more streamlined certification system for commercial drone operators. Nearly 23,000 commercial operators have been certified in the three months that system has existed, the technology website Recode reported last week.

A regional FAA spokesman did not respond to a request for more information, including a breakdown of how many certifications have been issued to Maine operators.

With the holidays here, growth in the drone industry can also be measured in sales. About 1.2 million drones could be sold this holiday season, up 112 percent from 2015, according to the Consumer Technology Association. Just this month, retail giant Amazon announced that it has made its first delivery of a package using a drone.

Some of the industry’s growth has been among hobbyists who simply enjoy flying the unmanned aircraft and using them to take photos – and who do not require a special license.

In Maine, though, drones are already being used or considered for a range of industrial purposes, according to Dan Leclair, a pilot and an instructor in the aviation program at University of Maine at Augusta. This fall, Leclair helped design and teach a course that prepared students for the test that is required to become a certified drone pilot.


Thirty-seven students took the course with the intention learning how to use unmanned aircraft to inspect buildings and utilities, photograph homes for sale, survey land and monitor crops.

“What (unmanned aircraft systems have) done for aviation is just phenomenal,” Leclair said. “People thought it would take jobs away from the industry, but it’s creating jobs.”

Wayne Kilcollins, an instructor at Northern Maine Community College, isn’t new to aviation, but he has been at the forefront of drone use in one iconic Maine industry: potato farming.

Kilcollins, a certified pilot who volunteers for the Maine Civil Air Patrol, has been working with a startup company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Raptor Maps, which is applying drone technology to the agriculture industry. As part of a pilot program in Aroostook County, Kilcollins helped the company use drones to monitor potato crops. Kilcollins said farmers seemed receptive to the possibility that close, aerial monitoring could lead to more efficient farming techniques and higher yields of spuds.

The nascent industry does present regulatory challenges, Veilleux noted. he is also concerned about the commercial use of drones by other operators who are not licensed, both because they are less likely to do so safely and they compete with him.


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