Jonathan Elliott, founder of MKE Drones. Image: JE

Interview: Jonathan Elliott of MKE Drones


While covering the news in the c-drone industry, I often have the opportunity to speak with drone pilots who have established their own businesses. In general, I could say they are a forward-looking lot, understanding the potential of unmanned craft in photography and filmmaking, real estate, emergency response and law enforcement, construction, agriculture, logistics, and so on. There are over 116,000 registered c-drone operators in the US as of mid-December 2018 — hobbyists included — but I wanted the point of view of a professional, so when I saw on social media that Jonathan Elliott of MKE Drones in Milwaukee was flying to New York for a shoot, I arranged to meet him and sit down for an interview on February 10.

Q: Meeting with Jonathan Elliott of MKE Drones. Jon, thanks for sitting down with us. Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself, how you got into drones and about your company’s services?

Jonathan Elliott: Sure. So, we’ve been in business for about four years. I actually spent my previous time before that working for an asphalt paving company, in sales, and as the youngest salesman there, when they decided to start using drones for marketing it kind of fell on me: “Hey, why don’t you take this over”. So I started doing it. It’s a slow process, especially in the beginning, just learning how to fly and how to operate them correctly. I quickly realized there was also a business opportunity there. So I bought more drones, more of my own gear and jumped in that way. We’re based out of Milwaukee and I would say now a lot of what we do is related to construction, commercial real estate, marketing — working with marketing firms, or the marketing departments of corporate firms, on different things they want. Then TV commercials, TV shows, and then last year we did do work on one feature film that was working out of Milwaukee. So the majority will be just based in Milwaukee, but we do travel, like right now I’m obviously in New York, headed upstate tomorrow to go shoot with a TV show. So that’s a little bit about what we do.

Q: So, you’ve worked with lots of clients, Milwaukee and elsewhere, upstate New York. I saw that you’ve often provided the aerial shots for productions which involve a ground crew. Can you tell me what in your view separates the pros from the amateurs in this industry as a service company?

Jonathan Elliott: Sure. So, you know, it comes down almost to even as simple as why they actually brought me out here to New York for this shoot. This company actually was in the upper peninsula of Michigan last year and got ahold of me and said, we really like your stuff. We want you to come out and work with us on shooting a bunch of B-roll for a show. And so we made that happen. I went up there and shot with them and the producer I was dealing with said, “We’ve called companies on other location shoots. We’ve gone and we don’t know we’re getting. Sometimes they don’t even know what ND [Neutral Density] filters are. They don’t know anything about codecs, you know, they don’t know anything. Honestly, it’s easier to have someone that we know, who knows what they’re doing, and then just take them out where we need them to go.”

So I would say that’s one thing that’s a big separator is understanding the production industry a little bit and what they want. A lot of people go buy a drone and you know, it shoots 4K and they think they’re going to go out and do whatever. Well, there’s so many more things that go into it than that, including — shooting for the show tomorrow, we’ll be shooting [Apple] ProRes, which a lot of people don’t even know what that is, but that’s just a much higher bitrate codec than you would use on a standard drone. And most drones don’t even shoot ProRes. So there’s things like that, production companies wanting to see, that the average drone operator is not going to understand or even have the capability to do. And obviously there are other companies out there that do the same thing that we’re doing, some good, but probably 90-95% of people with a drone can’t provide the quality of footage that they’re looking for, for a production like this.

Q: Now, on your website, you mentioned you like using DJI equipment, can you tell us a little what informs your choice?

Jonathan Elliott: Absolutely. The biggest reason that we use them is, as far as image quality goes, nobody else has really come quite close to where they’re at yet. The Inspire 2 is what I’m going to likely use tomorrow. It’s kind of a marvel in and of itself because — it’s not compact by any means, it’s still a fairly large drone, but it’s compact in comparison to larger hexa or octocopters that people want to fly, with say a RED or an ALEXA Mini camera underneath. The Inspire is a lot smaller and more compact than that, but it can still shoot RAW and I can still shoot ProRes. And there’s not really any other drone on the market right now that has all of that in it from anybody else. There’s Parrot, there’s stuff that’s very consumer-based, or some of it’s more mapping-based. Even Yuneec, they have some stuff out right now, but none of their stuff even comes close to what DJI has right now for image quality and for functionality, even though obviously, we’re dealing with technology that is still going through all kinds of phases of change and that is software-based, so there are all these problems that pop up every time there’s a new firmware out, you think they’re going to fix some stuff and they do, and then more things break. Well, it’s just the nature of the beast. I don’t think that changes no matter what manufacturer you’re using. But like I said, their ability to pack so much in such a high quality of image and into such a fairly small package has made them really the ideal choice for us to use for what we do. It’s really all about image quality at the end of the day. Whether customers would see the difference between what I’m using and, say, a Yuneec drone or not, doesn’t really matter because when I’m editing I can see the difference. And so I know that if I’m happy with what I’m giving them, then hopefully they should be happy with that choice as well.

Q: So you travel by air with drones. I know that can sometimes be a headache. Do you have any tips to avoid nasty surprises?

Jonathan Elliott: Yes, the biggest one — which I posted this morning on my social media — was any lithium batteries have to be brought as a carryon item, the reason being that the airlines or TSA [Transportation Security Administration] or whoever it happens to be internationally, you can actually control a fire if it’s in the cabin, believe it or not, as terrible as that sounds. If a battery lights on fire inside the cabin, they can just pull it down and use a fire extinguisher and put it out. If a battery goes up in smoke and starts a fire underneath in the checked area, the cargo area, there’s not a whole lot they can do, so that could actually bring down a plane. So that’s the biggest thing. Any lithium batteries that are not actually attached to the drone. The exception is if you have one in the drone, it can get checked. I think I brought all mine as carryons just because it’s safer that way. Occasionally, TSA will give you a hard time about having a drone or when you’re carrying a lot of electronics, they’ll stop you and they’ll want to swab your stuff for bomb residue or whatever. I have had that happen before when I’m flying with drones, but the battery is the biggest thing by far that people need to be aware of when they’re going to fly.

Q: All right, now, when clients are interested in obtaining drone shots, what are some common pitfalls? Do you find yourself explaining things in particular to clients about licensing or about insurance or liability?

Jonathan Elliott: I guess the sad part is that a lot of people don’t know. They don’t know that they’re liable based on who they use. Any larger corporations now have attorneys on staff who are aware of the scenario and they’ll actually ask. If I’m dealing with a marketing director, they’ll hit me up usually after we’ve talked through some of the formalities and go, “Hey, our insurance people or our attorney want to see certificates of insurance.” So they want to see licensing and all that stuff. Larger firms are getting better. Small firms, smaller companies, you know, there’s a lot of that where they just don’t understand. So you end up not worrying about it because they don’t ask for it. If they don’t ask for a certificate of insurance, a COI, I probably won’t send one over, because they’re covered regardless of whether I give them a COI or not, but you know, if they want proof, obviously I take care of that and send that over. Same thing on the licensor thing. A lot of them don’t understand the whole process and I don’t worry about it too much then.

But there’s also a fine line between informing people, you want to be careful not to — one of the biggest things I see people in the drone industry do is, they see a social media post that somebody did something, they’re like, you can’t do that, blah, blah, blah. Well, I mean generally you might be right, but you also don’t know, you weren’t there, you weren’t the pilot, you don’t know the scenario. Maybe they did that fully legally and there are certain instances where you very clearly know someone didn’t. But there’s also a lot of cases where, you know, things have progressed. Now there are companies that can fly over people now, more than one. It used to be just CNN, now there are others. So there’s all these things now that are changing, so you have to kind of stay in your lane these days and make sure. For night, not for flight over people, but for night I do have a waiver to fly at night, which most people can’t do. I think there’s maybe a dozen or so in the state of Wisconsin. That’s about it. There’s not a whole lot of them. It’s actually interesting. They were easier to get early on in Part 107. They actually got harder to get in the last few years. The Department of Transportation kind of cracked the FAA over the head a little bit and said, Hey, this seems to be a little bit more challenging to get than you’ve made it so far. So I try to inform customers about legal issues when I need to or when I feel the opportunity presents itself, but I try not to force it on them either and I try not to beat anybody over the head with stuff about laws or whatever. I’ll try to gently, you know, send information out or just with my social media, let information go out and let people understand things that way.

Q: Recently we had the FAA reauthorization. It’s redrawing the regulatory landscape for drones in the US. From your point of view, what are the positives of that legislation? Is there something missing? Is there something that you go further? What can you say about that?

Jonathan Elliott: So I’ll start with the easier side of it, the commercial side of it. Nothing really changed, which I think is good for now. The more consistency they can keep on the commercial side, the better. That being said, we did just see the new NPRM [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] coming out for — it said for flight over people, it’s more of a grab bag situation — where obviously it’s out to public comment now and then it will go back private for all the comments to be reviewed and then the FAA will work on making the final actual law that will be released, with that NPRM, and that will make some big changes in the commercial side. So that will allow three different categories of flight over people. It’s going to allow for night operations without a waiver. It will basically lay the groundwork for what you need to follow to operate at night. And the waivers will basically not be necessary at that point. And then it does change a few of the things as far as even I believe for recurrent testing, which we had to do. I just had to do mine few months ago. I think you can actually do some different educational stuff and get your recurrent handled that way, versus having to go retake a test. So it’s kind of covering all these little things as far as that goes.

Going back though to the FAA Reauthorization Act, the hobbyist side of it is going to be a huge change and that was passed and it gave the FAA six months to come up with the changes for hobbyists [Ed.: the FAA published one such rule change yesterday]. Unfortunately we had a government shutdown and that I think has probably pushed them back to where they may not be on time with that six months, but we’ll see what happens with that. So potentially March, April, May, sometime this spring. I think it’s good changes. Previously hobbyists really didn’t have a lot put on them. It was basically register your drone, follow a CBO [Community Based Organization], which nobody knows what that is or even how to do it. So hobbyists, pretty much as long as you registered and didn’t do anything stupid, stayed away from the airports or notified the airports, you really didn’t have a lot to worry about. This is going to be putting a lot more responsibility on them. I think it will actually be tougher to be a hobbyist, however, I think at the end of the day, it lines them up a little bit more with Part 107. Not completely, but a little bit more to where they’re going to need to get authorization to fly around airports now, not just notification. It does limit them to 400 feet [altitude] and some of these things that had been fairly big concerns I think for manned [aircraft] pilots, you know, where there have been sightings of drones at 3000 feet in the air or whatever. So I think some of these things will help.

The problem though you go back to is, there are three types of operators out there. There are those who fly legally and they’re already doing things the way they should be. There are the uninformed and they are doing whatever they feel like doing because they don’t know. And so, I think one of the biggest things in the FAA Reauthorization Act was the educational piece in there, which granted the FAA, I think a million or a few million dollars a year worth of educational funds to help help people understand what they’re able to do legally and the laws surrounding drones which helps in two ways. It helps with educating new pilots coming in. But it also helps with educating the public. I can’t tell you how many times you’re flying two and a half miles from an airport, in a perfectly legal legal spot, and someone comes up to you and tells you you can’t fly within five miles of an airport. Some random person walking by and you’re like, OK, thank you. You have no idea what’s going on. You heard something on the news or read it in a news article and took it as gospel and you know, 90% of those news articles are wrong. So, I think that will be a huge piece is the educational part of it.

And the third type of operator are the illegal operators who are not just unknowing. They’re actually breaking the law intentionally or knowingly and unfortunately, you know, there needs to be better enforcement methods because you’re not fixing that even with having new laws and no matter how hard you crack down on drone operators, you’re not going to fix the illegal people unless you have some kind of way to be tracking them, finding them, basically some kind of enforcement method to make that happen. So, you know, overall I do think it’s going to be better for the industry, but I think that the enforcement is still the big issue that hasn’t been addressed and that needs to be addressed at some point. I think the Remote ID system will help out with that. Once that comes out in the next, hopefully the next two years here, it will just be like an electronic license plate that your drone will broadcast out that anyone within X radius of you can basically see what your drone is, basically see where it’s at, where you’re at, a little bit of information about it, its license number or whatever. And then the other piece beyond that will be unmanned traffic management, UTM, at some point. Those will work in tandem I think to help out with some of the illegal operator situations. But those are obviously still at least two to four years away I would say between the two of them.

Q: Now, when you film images, let’s speak about copyrights. I imagine that the images generally become the property of the people who contracted or are there cases in which you keep the copyright for your work?

Jonathan Elliott: So anything I shoot for a production company, where they make you sign a contract, you’re generally handing over rights and you don’t hold any rights under an NDA [Non-Disclosure Agreement], all that stuff. Anything you shoot that’s going to be more for commercial photography, for a real estate firm or a marketing company, it really depends on your contract. But a lot of times you still do maintain the rights on all that stuff. And the other companies hold basically a right that you’ve granted them for whatever use you contractually allowed them to have, but you’re holding holding those copyrights on all that.

Q: All right, one more question if I may. Would you have any advice to offer to people who are interested in starting a drone services business?

Jonathan Elliott: Yes. You know, the biggest thing I’ve been trying to maintain with my business is trying to keep it sustainable. There have already been at least two companies, if not three, that I can think of in my area that were started a year or two before me or even some after and are already gone now. They’ve basically just dried up and gone away. And I think that’s for two reasons. I think it’s because sometimes they’re not on a sustainable model. They’re trying to focus on, let’s say, residential real estate where the market’s so cheap these days where people will shoot a house for $150 [€133]. Well, that’s just not sustainable long term. You can’t build a strong business off of that.

And then the other reason would be, I think, there’s also a level of burnout that people feel. I think if you’re not careful, you get into it and then a year and a half in, you’re like, “Hey, this is more work than I thought it was going to be. I’m not making my millions”, I think is what people assume sometimes coming in, that they’re going to make a whole bunch of money and be set for life. Or, you know, they’re going to make half a million dollars a year doing it. It’s going to be really easy to make money. And it’s not, it takes time, it takes a lot of effort. So I think there’s some falloff because of that too. So I would say: Jump into it, but just be careful, early on it’s OK to do things for free or for a little because you’re learning, you’re trying to get your legs underneath you as far as how things work, how to get high quality stuff out to people, but then at some point you have to start adapting that to a model that’s really sustainable. And then if at some point people decide they’re not into it, they’re not into it, that is what it is. But before you jump in too deeply, just make sure it’s something that you actually want to do and that you’re willing to put the time and effort and energy into keeping it going.

Q: All right Jon, thank you so much for sitting down with us.

Jonathan Elliott: Yes, thank you.