First company in city gets feds’ OK to fly drones over people

Helios Visions has found a niche providing mapping and photo services on construction projects, but the waiver could eventually allow companies to make deliveries.

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Helios Visions co-founder and chief pilot Tyler Gibson operates a drone on the job in for the renovation of Midland Bank in Des Moines, Iowa.

Helios Visions co-founder and chief pilot Tyler Gibson operates a drone on the job in for the renovation of Midland Bank in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photo provided

A local company has become the first in the city to receive a federal waiver allowing its operators to fly drones over people — highlighting just how far the nascent industry has come in a short period of time.

While the company largely plans to use the drones on constructions sites, the waiver could eventually lead to the ability to fly over large crowds at festivals — or even to make deliveries.

Ted Parisot, co-founder of Helios Visions, said it was only a few years ago that he and a few friends were discussing how to turn their interest in drones into a sustainable enterprise.

“There wasn’t really a commercial drone industry yet,” Parisot said of the group’s conversations in 2014. “We were like, ‘How do we turn this into a business?’”

Since then, Helios, based in West Town’s Fulton Market Innovation District, has managed to carve out its own niche, largely catering to architecture and construction firms. They’ve done work for the developers of the 78 — a new riverfront neighborhood being built on the city’s Near South Side — and for the renovation of the old Cook County Hospital.

For the former Cook County Hospital project, Helios used a drone to take high-resolution photos of the hospital’s facade in a grid. This, Parisot said, allowed developers to better plan where to start, what materials they will need and how working on one section of the building might effect another.

Previously, he said, someone would have had to go up in a cherry picker to take the photos or rely on workers on scaffolding to make assessments.

“We see drones as a safer, faster solution,” Parisot said.

He said the industry is continuing to grow “by leaps and bounds,” with companies diversifying and becoming more specialized.

Helios was granted a waiver in September from the Federal Aviation Administration that will allow it to operate a drone over people, though he expects to use it sparingly. For Helios, the waiver is more about allowing them to operate the drone over construction sites when crews are working, Parisot said.

“We can use them to supplement a ground surveying crew,” he said as an example.

In the future, he said the company could try to use the wavier to expand their business into photographing and filming outdoor festivals, and into a potential brand new market for making local deliveries.

The waivers are available to operators who have a commercial license issued by the FAA and include allowing operators to fly a drone at night, to operate a drone from a moving vehicle and for a single pilot to operate more than one drone at a time.

Chicago has its own rules and regulations governing the use of drones in the city, which were passed in 2015. The city was the first major municipality in the country to create their own regulations and still has some of the strictest on the books. Safety was cited as a major factor in the need for the ordinance, which included examples of operators flying drones over crowds at Lollapalooza, a gun-firing drone created by a Connecticut college student and an incident when a man crashed his drone into a runway at Midway Airport.

In July, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who co-sponsored the ordinance, told the Sun-Times he expected the city to revisit the ordinance in light of the rapid growth of the drone industry. Waguespack did not respond to a request for comment last week on whether a review was still anticipated this year.

Commercial operators can mostly get around the city’s ordinance, which provides an exemption for drone pilots who have a commercial FAA license and the appropriate waivers.

To get the waiver, Parisot said his company had to purchase additional hardware for its drone, including a parachute that could deploy in an emergency, and had to get the drone certified to prove it met requirements, which cost “thousands of dollars.”

Helios Visions co-founders Ted Parisot (left) and Tyler Gibson.

Ted Parisot (left) and Tyler Gibson co-founded Helios Visions with Calvin Gin (not pictured) as a way to turn their interest in drones into a business.

Photo provided

The result is that recreational flyers are significantly more restricted than professional flyers in how they can operate drones in the city. Recreational flyers have complained that the city’s rules effectively leave them without a place to fly, outside of private property.

“I think regulation helps grow industries,” Parisot said. “The city wants it to be safe, the FAA wants it to be safe — we want it to be safe.

“Keeping up with the regulations is just part of the job.”

Parisot said he expects the regulation of drone flight to continue to get stricter as they become more ubiquitous and as more cases of improper use pop up, such as when drones were spotted in the highly trafficked airspace around the California wildfires, hindering authorities’ ability to fight the fires.

“This is still a really young industry, and you want people to follow the rules,” Parisot said.

Helios Visions co-founders (from left) Ted Parisot, Tyler Gibson and Gavin Gin photographed by a drone on top of their West Town office building.

Helios Visions co-founders (from left) Ted Parisot, Tyler Gibson and Calvin Gin photographed by a drone on top of their West Town office building.

Photo provided

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