Luke Didion doesn’t think of himself as tech-oriented. A junior at Naples High School, he said he’s driven largely by sports — soccer and skiing among others. But an interest in business got a jump start last summer after his mom, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty, came home with a suggestion.
“Someone came to her doorstep with a flyer,” said Luke, talking about the day his mom, Theresa Didion, pitched the idea. The flyer was an ad for drone services. “She said, you could do this,” he recalled.
That got him thinking — especially last summer while working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. “That’s when I really got going with this drone thing,” said Luke, who turned 17 last month.
He began by taking an online course in August to orient himself to the world of drones. He liked what he learned. So he pursued a commercial certification and tested at SkyOp, a Canandaigua-based company that teaches people how to fly drones.
Through his newly-launched Finger Lakes Drone Services, Luke has produced several projects for his mother’s real estate work as well as for other realtors, has provided photos and videos for marketing Bristol Harbour condos, and is tracking construction of a home-build on Stid Hill Road for a homeowner in South Bristol. The construction project involves returning to the site on a regular basis to document developments.
At SkyOp, co-founder Brian Petre said Luke is one of the youngest to earn the commercial FAA remote pilot certification as you must be at least 16. Hundreds of people have obtained the certification since SkyOp launched in 2013, he said. Interest keeps growing, he said, particularly in the generations older than Luke, such as Generation X and Baby Boomers.
SkyOp offers a nationally recognized high-tech curriculum directly and through workforce development partnerships at colleges and universities throughout the country. It was named last year as one of the top six such companies in the Genius NY competition, selected from 250 nationwide that took part in the Empire State Development (ESD)-funded contest.
Careers using drones include construction, insurance, agriculture, real estate and photography.
Over 100,000 new jobs are projected for unmanned aircraft operations by 2025, according to a 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts the market for commercial applications of drone technology will reach $127 billion by 2020.
Petre said SkyOp is involved with training law enforcement, firefighters and other emergency responders in using drones, an area that is taking off. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation launched its new unmanned aerial vehicle program this fall, deploying a fleet of 22 drones across the state to boost environmental management, conservation and emergency response efforts. SkyOp staff helped train DEC pilots under the guidance of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research team at the federal drone test site at Griffiss International Airport in Oneida County.
Luke demonstrated a flight with his drone at Naples Community Park recently. A DJI Phantom 4 Pro+, it can fly up to 45 mph and 4 miles away. The camera streams live HD video to the controller.
According to regulations, the drone must be kept in sight and it has a “return to home” feature if the pilot loses sight of the drone. It can fly as high as 400 feet and is well equipped to avoid obstacles. Luke takes photos using the handheld control, and photos and video can be easily transferred to a computer.
Luke said that operating the drone is easy. Finding the right weather conditions, though, is not always easy: Snow and wind can present obstacles.
Thinking toward college and a career, Luke said he is contemplating a degree in business. Whether drones will be a part of his career future, he couldn’t say.
“I just like flying it,” he said.