WINTER GARDEN — While dabbling in a new hobby, Keith Bruno recognized a need — and an opportunity.
The Winter Garden resident and helicopter pilot had always had an interest in remote control aircrafts, dating back to the 1990s. Then on a trip to California last year, Bruno kept hearing about the growing popularity of drones, and an idea began to take shape.
Upon returning, Bruno decided to purchase a drone to satisfy his curiosity and see what he could learn about the technology. Always one to do his homework, Bruno soon made an interesting observation as he prepared to make his purchase.
“There are several stores around Orlando that will sell you a drone — but there’s not anybody that will teach you anything about it,” Bruno said. “They don’t teach you how to fly it or really know anything about it; it’s just another product that they’re selling.
“So I was kind of dismayed — I was like, ‘I want to learn more about this not just from a hobby standpoint, but from a commercial standpoint,’” he said.
From that realization came the origins of Drone Academy, USA. The new business celebrated its ribbon cutting with the West Orange Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 13 and includes Bruno and one employee, Tania Proctor, who helps with marketing and communications.
Bruno said he has high hopes for the company but that his main goal is to educate drone users about safety and responsibility. The longtime pilot can readily rattle off recent incidents from the news where drones have been flown improperly, causing a variety of headaches.
“I thought, ‘Hmm, I think other people need to know how to do this,’” Bruno said. “They need to know how to fly these things and do it safely. We need to be responsible and know what it is that we can do, so that was the whole reason for me to start the Drone Academy.”
“Ever since I can remember … I have always wanted to fly,” Bruno said.
Originally, he set out to become a commercial airline pilot. In the 1990s, Bruno got his license as a commercial airline pilot, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the corresponding trouble that the airline industry experienced, more pilots were being laid off than hired. That’s when a tip took Bruno in a new direction: helicopter pilot.
Most of the workforce of helicopter pilots in the early 2000s was aging; many of them began flying in the Vietnam War. As the workforce neared retirement, there were not many replacement pilots waiting in the wings. That demand for new pilots proved to be a life-changing development for Bruno, who sold an airplane he had built and used the money to train as a helicopter pilot.
Currently, Bruno flies for a helicopter tour company on International Drive near Dave & Busters and also is a backup pilot News 13. He has been teaching flight lessons in some capacity since 2005, making the transition to teaching for Drone Academy, USA a smooth one.
Bruno said the current focus is getting the academy’s online course ready to go live by the end of the year. In-person commercial classes currently are awaiting clearance hurdles from the Federal Aviation Administration — although the curriculum is already prepared — and consultations for hobbyist drone fliers can be purchased now. Bruno is also available to do contract work with his drone for area businesses in need of photos or video.
And, while the curriculum for Drone Academy, USA will broach a number of topics — including maneuvering and all of the many capabilities drones can offer — the Winter Garden resident said safety and awareness will top the list.
“Part of our course is teaching you, obviously, how to fly,” Bruno said. “We will teach all different types of ground reference maneuvers and how you can do all of those types of things. … I would say the most important thing is to know how to fly safely.”
While working the helicopter for News 13 one day, Bruno was called on to report to a house fire.
Upon arrival, Bruno noted three other helicopters from other outlets were present, making four total at the scene. Perhaps it was just a slow news day, but the veteran pilot remembers thinking how much more efficient it might be if some of the different news outlets had drones equipped with cameras.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘What a waste of money and resources,’” Bruno said.
Bruno sees an ever-expanding market for drone usage that isn’t limited just to opportunities for news media outlets.
Farmers, real-estate agents, construction companies and film and television crews are all among the fields where drones are either becoming more readily available or will soon be. He also notes they are being used with success in Africa to help discourage poaching.
Most importantly, though, as they become more common, Bruno foresees a commercial demand for drones by many local businesses — a demand on which he hopes to capitalize.
“This is where it’s heading,” Bruno said.
The need for aerial photos and flyover video is being met by impressive advances in technology, he adds. Improvements in stabilization for the cameras mean drone video footage does not even look as though it is being shot from one, and cameras that come standard on drones are ever-improving.
“The camera that we have on our drone is a 4K camera — that’s four times high-definition video,” Bruno said. “It sends it back live in 720p to my tablet, so you can actually see what it is seeing. You can literally put any kind of a movie camera on a drone. … You cannot tell that it’s flying. It looks like somebody is just walking with a steady cam. It’s amazing.”
Beyond the commercial uses, there is a growing market for the devices as a hobby — and even as a means of competition.
“There’s actually drone racing … it’s a lot of fun — it’s like a new sport, really,” Proctor said.
Whatever one’s interest in drones, information on classes offered by Drone Academy, USA, can be found online at droneacademyusa.com.
“My hopes are actually to basically take the class national,” Bruno said. “I would like to have several instructors that work for us in different locations and teach these classes. That’s what our dream is, to be able to do in the next couple years.”
• There could be 30,000 drones overhead in the U.S. by 2020, according to the Washington Times.
• There’s a fair amount of disagreement about what to call drones. The industry refers to them as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). The U.S. Air Force calls them RPAs (remote piloted aircraft) because “they aren’t unmanned; there are pilots involved,” protested one Air Force lieutenant general. When not talking about massive Predator-type drones but instead referring to the type you can fit in the trunk of your car, many call them sUAS (small unmanned air systems).
• The surveillance industry wants drones to be more friendly. In Britain, manufacturers have suggested painting drones bright colors as a way to make them seem friendlier and less reminiscent of war zones, reports The Guardian.
• Cape Canaveral is now a drone base. The base previously used primarily to launch shuttles is now a drone practice spot and sends out a General Atomic Guardian drone to monitor the southeast border and fly over the ocean to make drug busts.
• The Coast Guard expects drones will increase its prosecutions by 95%.
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].