Indoor drone company took flight during pandemic, now zooming through buildings across city

From filming luxury high-rises to flying next to Benny the Bull at the United Center, two entrepreneurs have come a long way since their days filming their classmates’ sporting events at Barrington High School.

SHARE Indoor drone company took flight during pandemic, now zooming through buildings across city
Indoor Drone Tours CEO Zach Dulla, left, and COO John Bach, right, stand outside 1330 W. Fulton Market in the West Town neighborhood, Tuesday morning, Feb. 8, 2022. Indoor Drone Tours provides virtual tours of commercial and residential properties that are filmed by drone pilots.

Indoor Drone Tours CEO Zach Dulla, left, and COO John Bach stand outside 1330 W. Fulton Market in the West Town neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

John Bach and Zach Dulla are flying high.

Their drone company, Indoor Drone Tours, has shot real estate promotional videos inside luxury high-rises and commercial spaces across the city.

But their aerial devices have also hummed within inches of Chicago Bulls dancers, known as the Luvabulls, and alongside team mascot, Benny the Bull, dunking at the United Center. A video they shot of the clubhouse and locker room of the famed Whistling Straits Golf Course in Wisconsin during the Ryder Cup last year went viral.

The Chicago Fire soccer team is also a client.

Two years ago, as the pandemic began to grip the country, their company took off by offering “contactless drone tours” to sellers who didn’t want people in their homes.

It was initially a side project for a marketing company Dulla and Bach started after quitting their sales jobs when they were 23 but quickly became a separate business and their main focus.

Bach and Dulla, now 28 and friends from their days filming high school sports as part of Barrington High School’s video production club, found their niche in “first-person view” drones.

Pilots of the tiny devices wear a headset — they look like oversized goggles — with screens that livestream a camera feed from the drone, essentially offering the pilot a cockpit view.

Most importantly, the technology allows a pilot to stay in one location while flying the drone through a maze of rooms or tight spaces — eliminating the need for a direct line of sight.

The resulting video footage transports viewers as if atop Superman’s shoulders.

Their first break came when an Oak Park real estate agent called and said, “I have to sell five houses for sellers who won’t let me or a photographer inside,” recalled Dulla, who is CEO of Indoor Drone Tours.

“We’d put the drone inside the front door, and the family inside would hide out of sight in the basement or bathroom for a few minutes to stay out of the video as we’d fly through the home,” he said.

The video would be edited and posted to an online listing of the home.

Their business has grown and evolved. The company, which has no physical office space, employs eight people full time, including a new hire in Denver to help expand outside the Midwest.

While no one is asking for contactless drone tours anymore, real estate is still their main focus.

Their customers are now 70% commercial real estate, 20% retail and hotels and 10% residential real estate.

Other drone companies exist in Chicago, but none seem to offer the same focus on first-person view drones.

“I think that will change very soon, but for now, we’re trudging through our own territory,” Dulla said.

One of their early gigs in the commercial market was for Matt Pistorio, a principal of R2 Companies and founder of Madison Rose.

Pistorio needed footage of Germania Place, a historic building on the Near North Side he was trying to lease.

“Their video is the reason we leased it. Someone from overseas, in Italy, came across footage they shot of our ballroom space, and we signed a deal that ended up bringing the Immersive Van Gogh Experience to Chicago,” Pistorio said.

The company also shot the Old Main Post Office that’s been rehabbed and converted into office space. More recently, they’ve produced videos for hotels in Dallas and San Diego.

The National Association of Realtors found in a 2021 report on sales trends that 45% of agents reported that including virtual tours in listings was much more important since the beginning of the pandemic. And members put drones among the top emerging technologies that would be useful in selling a property.

Rob Pontarelli, senior vice president of marketing for Magellan Development Group, one of the city’s biggest builders with projects that include Lakeshore East and the St. Regis Tower, said drone footage for high-value listings is something buyers have come to expect.

“I would do it on every million dollar and above listing. I think it’s worth it,” said Pontarelli, who’s used Indoor Drone Tours to promote Magellan projects.

“The drone videos we have will fly around the neighborhood and show the building from the outside and then come into the front entrance. It really gives you a better feel for space than 3D tours,” he said.

The sizzle value offered by first-person view drones was a natural fit for the Bulls, said Chris Ramirez, head of the team’s video production.

“The Bulls never really had experience with FPV, so that skill set is something we wanted to bring into our content,” said Ramirez, who weaves together the content that appears on the United Center’s Jumbotron and on Bulls social media.

“I’ve never known of a Chicago company that does something similar,” he said. “A drone flew through a basketball rack and inches from our dancers, and we only rehearsed it three or four times,” he said.

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