An aerial advertising assault is about to descend on Philadelphia. It’s not coming by helicopter, blimp or plane, but instead by drone.
DroneCast, a newly-formed high-flying advertising company, took its first official flight on Monday afternoon -- launching from Eakins’s Oval along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
“It’s very targeted advertising and all we need to do is put the coordinates in and it flies,” said GauravJit Singh, the company’s 19-year-old founder and CEO. The former Drexel bio-engineering major said he came up with the idea after learning about Amazon’s plans to deliver packages using the unmanned machines.
The drones, which weigh about 3 lbs. and have four plastic rotors, carry banners brandishing a business’ ad. The banners, which can be as big as 6 feet long and 2 feet wide, hang from below the flying machines.
“It flies around 25 feet high. That’s where it won’t hit traffic lights or anything else,” the teen said. “It can go up to 1,200 feet.”
For comparison, helicopters, like SkyForce10, cruise at an altitude between 1,000 and 1,500 feet and the Streets Department says the majority of street lights in Philly are 30 feet tall.
"IT’S ALL AUTONOMOUS"
Controlling the drones, Singh said is all automated. The operator uses an iPad app to plot a route on a Google Maps-like program -- choosing the altitude, flight speed and when to hover. When the route is set, they launch the drone and the advertisement goes flying down the city’s streets, using GPS as its guide.
“We have people following it with cars to make sure it’s OK. But other than that, it’s completely autonomous,” he said. Singh said once the drones are proven to work without issues along city streets, they’ll retire the chase cars and monitor up to four drones from one base site.
DroneCast, which has four $4,000 drone setups in its fleet, already has five clients ready to try the new aerial advertising – including shops and restaurants along South Street and Market Street in Center City and Old City. Each will pay $100 a day to have their banner fly by busy intersections and office buildings.
"This is a lot cheaper for our clients and I feel you have a lot bigger impact than a billboard," said Singh, who has invested about $10,000 into the company -- money borrowed from his dad.
"I think it’s unique, you need something to keep things going," said Wanda Gibson, who was walking by the launch site on Monday. "It’s kind of like when you’re at the shore and you see the banner plane going across."
PHOTO: The group uses DJI Phantom drones to carry the banners and GPS to navigate and pilot the machine.
IS IT LEGAL?
Flying drones for hire currently falls into a legal gray area. The FAA is in the process of devising guidelines for using drones for business purposes in the United States.
Currently, rules state enthusiasts are allowed to fly at 400 feet or lower, but bars drones for hire unless they get special permission and are operated by a licensed pilot. However, a number of businesses locally and nationwide have flown the the face of the rules and operated the machines for business purposes.
Adding to the issue, a federal court ruling in March gave commercial drone use the OK. The FAA is appealing the ruling and says its rules should be obeyed.
Last July, a Manayunk dry cleaner launched a promotion to deliver a piece of clothing, by drone, to one customer a month through a loyalty program. Other companies use the remotely controlled machines to take aerial photography and video.
Philadelphia currently does not ban the flight of drones in its skies. The Philadelphia Police Department said they would defer to FAA rules when enforcing drone use. Streets Commissioner David Perri said the department would be concerned about driver distraction and then drones hitting infrastructure and wires.
Joan Kane, who works in Center City, likes the service, but is concerned drivers could be distracted by the drone and hit a pedestrian or another driver.
“As long as people are aware of it and they consider everybody’s safety, I think it’s an innovative idea,” she said.
Singh said he hasn’t spoken with city officials about his business, but expects to hear from them as they begin to operate.
“Truthfully, I’ll see what happens, but I’m not worried because we as a country are progressing at such a great rate with technology and innovation and why should the government…be the ones to stop us from doing this,” he said.
GOING FURTHER & HIGHER
Singh says in order to be profitable, they’re hoping to group clients geographically, in sets of four in different sections of Philadelphia within the next six months. Then they plan to expand the service to other cities like New York and Los Angeles.
The Princeton-native said the company is also looking at sending the drones on vertical trips up and down the facades of Philly skyscrapers.
"If they’re hungry and it’s lunch and they see a banner going up for a restaurant, they’re obviously going to want to go there," he said.
PHOTO: GauravJit Singh, center right, is the founder and CEO of DroneCast.