JP Resident’s Drones Provide Bird’s Eye View of Neighborhood and Beyond

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High above Jamaica Plain's streets Julio Aguilar commands some of the best views of the neighborhood.

First Baptist Church on Centre Street, Jamaica Plain (Photo courtesy Julio Aguilar Jr.)

Julio Aguilar Jr. moved to Jamaica Plain in 2008 after being a wildlife educator at an alligator farm. Aguilar fielded questions from Jamaica Plain News about flying drones and talked about FAA regulations, aerial Christmas photos, his favorite things in Jamaica Plain, and even helping with a wedding proposal via drone. You can see more of Aguilar's work on his website.

Q: What have you taken aerial drone photos of in Jamaica Plain?

Aguilar: I've pretty much either walked or drove around and tried to capture buildings or places of interest. My absolute favorite spot is flying above the First Baptist Church on the corner of Myrtle and Centre. One day I decided to fly up because the skies were prime. This was around 5 or 6 pm (Golden Hour) and snapped a few to get a look at the pond from that location. I normally don't look at my photos right away because I have a busy schedule so when I got home I merely packed the drone back up. A day or two later I put the SD card in and started to go through them. One shot in particular stood out that I was amazed with because of the color and (accidental composition). I didn't show it to anyone and just posted it on the JP Facebook page. Within 24 hours I had over 400 likes and just as many comments. People were sending me private messages wanting to purchase the photo. Well at the time I didn't have a website so I just took a few orders and hand delivered them. I set up a basic e-commerce website with a collection of photos from JP and Boston. The responses were incredible. I had to take a day or two off to fulfill and deliver the photos and continue to post my new images on the Facebook page, my Facebook business page, as well as on Instagram.

Q: What are your favorite things to take drone photos in the Boston area?

Aguilar: Favorite places? That's a tough one. I didn't intend to classify the church as a favorite place but it's up there for sure! So there's a few places that I love to shoot repeatedly. The church is one, anywhere near the ocean, cemeteries and generally places that don't have appeal from the ground. I have flown once over the Arnold Arboretum and plan on it again once everything blooms. The main reason for that is because I can give people views from a different perspective (literally). Honestly, I just love to fly. I must also include that I have a very intense fear of heights.

Fall foliage (Photo courtesy Julio Aguilar Jr.)

Q: On your website you share overhead photos of the Forest Hills Cemetery, MBTA tracks, and more. What has surprised you from seeing aerial photos of the area?

Aguilar:  What surprises me anywhere I shoot is the architectural symmetry and the stories that these locations have to tell. Architecture-wise, no location has held a candle (to date) to the Forest Hills Cemetery. Train tracks I must say though are always cool to see from the sky especially bridges.

Q: Please share some of the logistics of flying a drone. How high can you fly? What disrupts your drone -- bad weather, hawks??

Aguilar: Now this is going to be a tricky one to answer but I think it's important to go into the regulations both put forth by the FAA and personal safety standards.

So drone pilots are classified in two categories, hobbyists and commercial. Since, for the most part, droning is in its infancy many regulations are still being ironed out.

So I'll start with the hobbyist side. Anyone can go to Best Buy and buy a drone. What they don't tell you is that any drone over 249 grams must be registered with the FAA. The registration acts as a "license plate" for the drone. The registration number is posted on the outside so in the event that the drone is lost or is involved in an incident where people or property are involved, the drone can be traced back to its owner. What they also don't tell you is that your maximum allowable elevation is 400 feet set forth by the FAA. However, the closer you get to controlled airspace such as an airport that decreases to allow safe travel by manned aircraft. As an example in Jamaica Plain some areas allow for a 250 foot maximum altitude, but in other areas 200. That changes depending on your proximity to controlled airspace. That's more or less a very simple explanation.

Sunset over Boston (Photo courtesy Julio Aguilar Jr.)

The commercial side has much more involved. In order to fly commercially a drone pilot must pass the small unmanned aircraft exam administered by the FAA. A majority of the questions are about airspace, where you can and cannot fly, safety (HUGE!) and weather. After passing, if you don't own a drone, is the fun part which is actually picking out a drone. I post photos on my Facebook business page but also tips for new drone pilots to aid them in training and selecting a drone for their purpose. Lighter drones are easier to carry, lightweight and accessories are more economical. They are however limited on capabilities. Larger drones are louder, heavier and accessories are more expensive but you get a lot more capability out of it.

The leader of the commercial drone world is a company based in China called Dji. They offer a variety of drones built to cater different niches of the drone world. I personally own 7 drones (soon 8 but don't tell my wife). My two workhorses are the Mavic Air (original model) and the Phantom 4 Advanced (an extremely versatile drone still regarded as an all in one) made by Dji.

One of the most important aspects of selecting a drone is the type of job you want to accomplish with it. The question I get asked frequently is "What drone should I buy?" I respond with two questions..."Well, what's your budget and what do you want to do with it?" If you're just looking to take pictures and video there's no need to go out and spend two thousand dollars on one but if you're trying to get into land/roof/property inspections that's a little more high end. If you're using it to capture video for commercials or movies, now you're moving into the $3,000 to $10,000 realm. For someone who just wants to learn as a hobbyist I'd recommend a small learner drone like the Dji Tello which has a price point under $200 with additional accessories included. It can even be flown with a smart phone. Will it fly 200 feet, will it take the best videos, does it have a 20 minute battery life? Absolutely not, but we all have to start somewhere.

Overhead of Gloucester (Photo courtesy of Julio Aguilar Jr.)

So some of the hazards I face...signal interference is probably the most common one. From flying in a large city with a ton of radio signals bombarding the drone to cell phone towers in the middle of nowhere. It happens everywhere and "fly aways" are possible. It's basically when another signal overpowers your drone and it then takes on a mind of its own. It can fly away and crash into something or just keep flying until it runs out of battery. Either way your out a drone and have potentially put someone at risk. This is where your training and safety mitigation comes into play. There are ways of preventing this and also regaining control of the drone but you have to do your due diligence and know how to handle a situation like that if it arises.

Birds...birds are another hazard. I have seen eagles, hawks and falcons take down drones. Safety not only involves people and property but also wildlife. Because I have a background in wildlife education I am constantly on the lookout for areas with a high concentration of wildlife. When I've assisted in wildlife studies from the sky I can recognize nesting areas and try to avoid them unless the research involves it.

Weather is also extremely hazardous and plays a major role in selecting a drone as well. Growing up in Florida and living in Boston we rarely get "perfect days to fly." It's either too windy, too hot, too cold or pouring rain/snow. This is also a major safety factor to consider as the battery life of drones are heavily impacted by extreme temperatures and can make it hazardous to fly.

I can go on with this one. There's more to it such as getting authorization to fly in an area from the FAA (LAANC), no fly zones (nfz's) and temporary flight restrictions (tfr's).

Q: What do most clients hire you to take photos of?

Aguilar: The majority of my clients hire me for aerial real estate photography and videography. I've also done a fair share of property imagery for inspections, roof imagery for inspections, solar site inspections, films, commercials, home portraits, aerial Christmas cards, engagement/maternity portraits and have even lowered an engagement ring to the bride as the groom pops the questions. The applications are limitless. Mass Dot is actually utilizing drones for building and bridge inspections. Those are higher end drones retrofitted with different sensors (cameras) like infrared and thermals. I have also been hired for 3d modeling of houses and buildings which can be utilized by architects and construction companies for measurements and to approximate volumes of sand, dirt, concrete and salt stock easily.

I am presently a freelancer for Otbx Air Boston who specialize in ground and aerial photography, videography and matterport photography (virtual and 3D walk throughs).

Q: You worked as a wildlife wrangler for TV and movies. Do you use your drone skills to photograph/video wildlife in the Jamaica Plain area? What have you been able to see?

Aguilar: Most of the wildlife I've seen in Jamaica Plain from the sky are birds although I have spotted skunks and coyotes as well.

Q: What kind of drone do you use?

Aguilar: I have many drones: A tinyhawk fpv drone (a race car dron built for speed); Dji Tello; Dji Phantom 4 Advanced; Dji Inspire; 3 Walmart drones for my kids and students to learn and crash

I encourage those with a fascination to do their research before purchasing a drone. Don't spend too much money initially. Buy a $30 Walmart drone and fly it around your house (more difficult to learn indoors but a good way to build skill). Set up obstacles and learn your limits. I would definitely join Facebook Drone groups like the Boston Rogue Drone Pilot group. The number one place that I always encourage people to check out is Drone U. They are based in Albuquerque New Mexico and have multiple podcasts weekly. They also have an exceptional training program for new and experienced drone pilots. For anyone curious about drones or getting into droning, I'd encourage them to reach out to me via my website.