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Eye in the Sky: Sam Rockwell Takes His Adventure to New Heights

The Phantom II descends.
The Phantom II descends.

By Sarah Breemer Pfennigs

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

When Sam Rockwell’s Phantom II drone hums to life, it chirps a robotic jingle, as if saying hello. The lights blaze red, then glow green, its coaxial motors whir and the rotor blades spin, signaling that it’s ready to go. It takes flight easily and lightly, like a sparrow, and before long, the drone is just a black spot in the sky, capturing brand-new perspective on a familiar town.

Since March, Rockwell has turned his passion for flying into a viable and resourceful drone business.

What is a drone, you ask? Drones are also known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). For the military, they’re one of the most advanced pieces of equipment in the aeronautics, robotics, and electronics field and are used when manned flights are deemed to risky or difficult. Although controversial, military drones provide troops with what the BBC calls a “24-hour eye in the sky” and can stay airborne for up to 17 hours at a time, gathering real-time imagery of ground action. They can be used in stealth and precision attacks and are sometimes as large as a medium-sized airplane.

A successful landing.
A successful landing.

Rockwell’s Phantom II drone, however, looks more like a remote-controlled helicopter, but it’s no toy. In essence, his drone is a flying robot – a small, autonomous aircraft that can survey, film, photograph, and record aerially at up to 50 miles per hour. It runs and positions itself with GPS. For someone who counts flying as one of his passions, having his own drone and making it his livelihood was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“I’ve always loved to fly,” Rockwell says. “I’m not a pilot, but if someone is going flying and invites me, I’m there. I’d played around with remote-controlled helicopters and planes, but this is a completely different. I realized five minutes after putting this thing in the air that it was going to be a lot of fun.”

Rockwell, who’s a father to three and a grandfather to six, has a relatively long-standing business relationship in the community. He owned an Ebay drop-off store in 2003 and closed its doors just a month and half before opening his family-owned bakery, Yumi’s. When Yumi’s shuttered after six years, he began investigating new endeavors and delved full-time into researching and operating drones. He purchased a Phantom II, produced by a company called DJI, which makes 90% of commercially available UAVs.

Rockwell's Phantom II is equipped with a GoPro Hero Black 3 camera.
Rockwell’s Phantom II is equipped with a GoPro Hero Black 3 camera.

“I run a GoPro Hero 3 Black camera [on the drone],” explains Rockwell. “There are two or three models available. One of them has a camera that DJI puts on there themselves. I prefer the GoPro because I have more control over the settings. Plus I can just pop the GoPro off if I need to.”

Rockwell is a self-taught UAV pilot, but cautions those interested in the hobby to take it seriously. Not only are there FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rules to follow, it’s important to avoid flying directly over people and animals. Pre-flight checks are non-negotiable, just like a commercial airplane.

“I always fly with a co-pilot. You need another person to keep an eye on what’s going on in the sky, because my eyes are usually on the monitor,” Rockwell says. “FAA rules state that you must have visual contact with the aircraft at all times. There’s also a maximum height rule of 400 feet. I try not to fly over people or animals as a safety precaution. Sometimes with people it’s unavoidable, but that’s where your co-pilot comes in.”

Monitor of the Phantom II.
Monitor of the Phantom II.

“The thing you have to remember is that with any remote-controlled device, whether it’s a quad or a helicopter or an airplane, everything is great when they’re going away from you,” Rockwell continues. “When they’re coming back to you, everything is reversed. Right is no longer right and left is no longer left. If you’re not paying attention, it can really throw you for a loop. I spent most of my time early on just learning orientation.”

In addition to FAA rules, there are other factors to consider when operating a drone. Most people would assume that a drone would be a storm chaser’s dream, but Rockwell cautions against using a drone during heavy precipitation or high winds.

“The whole top of the drone is a circuit board,” Rockwell states. “[Drones] fly great but swim badly. I’ve flown in 20-25 mile per hour winds, but that’s the most I’d probably try. It stayed fairly stable, but when a gust hits, it throws you off. You have to maintain control, so it’s definitely more work.”

Beyond rules, regulations, safety, and know-how, cost is also a factor. Being a drone hobbyist isn’t cheap. Multi-rotor models can cost between $5,000-$50,000, depending on what equipment you have and what the drone is carrying. Still, Rockwell has some exciting goals in mind now that he’s been bitten by the UAV bug – specifically going into business. He’s a member of S.W.A.R.M. (Search With Aerial Rc Multirotor), a worldwide search and rescue volunteer roster, and cites real estate, crop assessment, and infrastructure inspections as potential markets.

“Real estate videos are really pretty cool,” Rockwell says. “They give the buyer a whole new perspective on the property, because what it looks like from the air is completely different from how it looks on the ground. I can cover a lot of ground fairly quickly, so farmers and crop assessment could benefit from [a drone] – it allows you to see problem areas and the ability to hover over that space to inspect. Even construction companies are using UAVs – it allows them to see projects from an aerial view they wouldn’t otherwise get.”

Rockwell readies the drone for take-off.
Rockwell readies the drone for take-off.

Rockwell isn’t just limiting himself to commercial prospects – he’s also taking inquiries for personal venues, like weddings, graduations, and sporting events. Although he’s wary about hovering too closely over people, he maintains that as long as he keeps a safe height distance and utilizes his co-pilot accordingly, it’s not a problem.

“Weddings and parties can be a lot of fun, but it does take some planning time,” Rockwell acknowledges. “You only get one shot when you’re covering an event. But it’s definitely something I want to do.”

Rockwell is working toward his FAA certificate, which should allow him to simultaneously fly and make money within a month. He’s still working on a name for his venture and plans to launch a Facebook page soon. He’s posted several of his drone videos to his YouTube channel (Sam Rockwell) and his own Facebook page, which he says garners a fair bit of attention. Operating the drone publicly has also resulted in curiosity and genuine interest from the community. Rockwell experience that firsthand at the July 3 Friday Fest in downtown Grinnell.

“We flew pretty good for a little while, but then the kids found out where I was,” Rockwell chuckles. “It was OK, though – I had someone with me. One of the co-pilot’s jobs is to make sure observers keep at a safe distance. Trying to fly near and around people just isn’t a good idea.”

Rockwell loves his current drone, but has his eye on an Inspire I, DJI’s most advanced model to date. The retractable landing gear, powerful propulsion, aerodynamic design, and 4K video is ideal for cinematography, another dream of Rockwell’s.

“With my current model, I have to have the camera actually pointing at what I want to look at,” Rockwell says. “With the Inspire I’s retractable landing gear, the camera rotates 360 degrees. I can sit in one spot and just rotate the camera.”

He’s also looking into purchasing a Phantom III, which – although not quite as advanced as the Inspire I – would offer him triple the range of his current Phantom. It also houses a built-in DJI Lightbridge, which handles all communication to and from the device.

“The sensors are located on the bottom of the drone, which makes flying inside significantly easier,” Rockwell states. “When you set those sensors at a certain level, you don’t have to fight height. You can simply maneuver.”

For a man who’s only had his drone for less than half a year, he already has an impressive archive of video and photographs. He has hours upon hours of footage, much of which he’s still editing and tweaking.

“I love capturing pictures,” Rockwell enthuses. “I do the video and take snapshots from it. I edit all of my own videos and set them to music. I just started posting to Instagram and realized I’ve been missing the boat! I launched my own account just three days ago and posted a couple of shots of the [Louis Sullivan] bank window and Krumm Preserve from 400 feet, and my Instagram absolutely blew up. I have a lot of people from Russia, Croatia, Australia, New Zealand, and China following me – some of them are drone enthusiasts, some are artists.”


Monitor of the Phantom II.
Monitor of the Phantom II.

“Hollywood is now just realizing rather than spending $500-$1,000 an hour on a helicopter, they can hire someone with a drone for $100-$300 an hour instead,” Rockwell continues. “I would love to get into cinematography.”

Rockwell can even envision himself having a storefront one day – not only operating the drones, but also selling them. As a former Grinnell business owner, however, he understands that’s it a huge time – and money – investment. Right now, he’s content honing his craft and doing business without an awning.

“Everytime I fly, I catch something I hadn’t intended on,” Rockwell smiles. “I learn something each outing. The possibilities are endless.”

Check out Sam’s videos at https://www.youtube.com/user/samheidirockwell

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