- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2016

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) - Joe Williams‘ fascination with unmanned aircraft spun itself into a unique local business that has allowed many local events to be documented from a bird’s-eye view.

A meteorologist for the 188th Wing’s unmanned aircraft operation overseas, Williams has flown remote controlled aircraft since he was growing up in Boise, Idaho. Earlier this year, he started Ascending Impressions, a local company that offers aerial video coverage of events from weddings and birthday parties to festivals.

Although his “drone” hangs high in the sky relatively unnoticed recording events like the Fort Smith Dragon Boat Festival, Williams is more easily spotted in a crowd with his and flight controls and a “UAS Pilot” jacket with neon green letters. He could be found recording aerial footage this year at the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival, the Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival and the 2016 Steel Horse Rally.

The incredibly smooth video images record memories for many, but they are also used to help gauge attendance, the Southwest Times Record reports (https://bit.ly/2hdqD4u ). For those larger events like the biker rally, the Fort Smith Advertising and Promotions Commission use attendance numbers gathered from drone coverage to calculate economic impact.

Williams also carries an “osmo” 3-D camera for ground footage. When not doing public events, he uses the equipment for real estate photography. Realtors use the interior footage to help sell homes.

Having flown remote-controlled aircraft for 15 years, Williams said he has seen how the technology steadily increased over the years to allow more stability in both flight and video recording. He started doing research for a business last year after he tuned into the HD-camera-to-phone technology that was developed for the aircraft systems.

Just in the past month DJI, one of the more well-known aircraft makers, released its Mavic Pro “pocket power drone” that can fly 40 mph with a three-mile control range. Rotors fold up into the drone, making it more easily transportable. At his YouTube channel, filmmaker and vlogger Casey Neistat calls the DJI Mavic Pro the “greatest drone ever.”

Williams flies what he calls a “Frankendrone,” a DJI Phantom quad-copter with various upgrades like larger rotors, that are more suited to his needs. His craft can stay aloft for about 30 minutes and take amazingly smooth video footage from a high vantage point and even in decently strong winds like those coming off the Arkansas River on Friday during a demonstration flight.

The FAA requires him to call the local airport control tower before each flight.

When he’s not trying to predict the weather for overseas military operations, Williams now works with Five Star Productions to film aerial footage and Mike Tucker Photography in Van Buren, which also offers aerial video services from the multi-rotor aircraft.

Although Williams started out with a “333 exemption” from the Federal Aviation Administration, an Aug. 29 announcement from the FAA gave him the ability to earn a Part 107 license for commercial unmanned aircraft uses. He is required to carry liability insurance.

“These multi-rotor aircraft are very popular, and you can buy them about anywhere, from Kohl’s and Yeager’s to Best Buy, but you’re looking at anywhere from $50 to a $1,000 for a commercial use drone,” Williams said.

For those who just want a fun toy to play with, the rules are pretty simple, Williams said. If the aircraft is over 1 pound, however, it must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Mini or micro-drones do not meet the weight limit to register with the FAA, he said.

Williams said he is working with the state public school system to help develop a curriculum for students interested in flying and maintaining unmanned aircraft. He hopes that both Northside and Southside high schools in Fort Smith are able to take part.

Beebe High School in central Arkansas, Williams said, is pioneering the idea of “drone” classes at high school and has become the only high school in the continental United States to offer a complete curriculum for unmanned aircraft. There is so far only one other high school, in Alaska, offering a drone flight program.

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Information from: Southwest Times Record, https://www.swtimes.com/

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