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From a practical standpoint, drones can go where helicopters can't, both in terms of proximity and cost. NBC used eight-rotor drones to chase skiers down the slopes at the Sochi Olympics. Movie directors use them for close-up aerial shots from positions where cranes can't reach. Developers can survey large plots of land quickly, and park rangers can broaden their anti-poaching surveillance. One company is even testing a solar-powered drone that could stay up for five years, tracking global weather patterns.
Top-of-the-line drone rigs are completely handmade and can cost upward of $30,000, but when an hour of helicopter time—not counting the camera operator or video equipment—runs more than $2,500, the cost analysis starts to make fiscal sense. "You're going to see them used more and more in search-and-rescue situations, and with fire departments—situations where you need more information from above," Short says. "Railroads and oil companies have miles of track and pipeline that need to be inspected. Things that are dirty, dangerous or boring are great uses for drones, we like to joke."
Golf is rarely any of those things, but the sport still makes a rich target for drone entrepreneurs. Colorado-based DroneMapper builds software programs that create densely detailed 3-D aerial maps. "Let's say you have 100 images from the drone looking down onto your golf course," says Jon-Pierre Stoermer, DroneMapper's chief technical officer. "The software stitches those images together and translates them into a three-dimensional map, complete with topographical elevations. You can zoom right down and be the golfer on foot and see every leaf on the grass."
The images are hyper-realistic, from the detail in rock formations to the slight curvature of the Earth. The images culled from satellites and traditional airplanes have a resolution of about half a square meter per pixel. The images produced by DroneMapper have a resolution of six square centimeters per pixel. In Google Maps, you can see the green. With DroneMapper, you can see the white of the lining in the cup.
Armed with that level of detail, a course operator can upload the data to its maintenance-control system and pinpoint the location of every sprinkler head. Other drone-mounted cameras measure reflected infrared light—a barometer of plant health—so superintendents can see which areas aren't receiving enough water and light before the grass shows visible signs of stress.
Super-accurate topographical data will also provide a more direct benefit to players: course guides on steroids. Conventional yardage books and GPS-based guidance screens on carts provide "flat" distances, and even that information can be off by as much as five yards. "Drone-based maps can give an exact elevation profile of a hole," Stoermer says. "Not only do you know how far it is between any two points, but what their relative elevations are."
All that's left is to pick the club and hit the shot.
You still have to do that yourself.__________
FREQUENT FLIERThe boilerplate Silicon Valley start-up tale always seems to begin in some anonymous programmer's basement or garage. Chris Anderson (pictured) has the start-up and the garage, but he's not exactly anonymous. Anderson edited Wired magazine for 12 years, and wrote the 2006 best-seller The Long Tail, which predicted niche markets were the future of business.
Appropriately enough, Anderson left his mass-media gig in late 2012 to turn his start-up into a full-time job. A physicist by training and a dedicated hobby flier, he co-founded drone manufacturer 3D Robotics in 2009. The venture-capital community is betting that he made the right decision. After a $5 million round of funding in 2012, 3D Robotics opened a 35,000-square-foot factory in Tijuana, Mexico. The company received an additional $30 million last year and is ramping up its research and development to capture more consumer and commercial market share by Christmas.
Anderson runs the company from a low-slung, garage—like office in Berkeley, Calif. A 3-D printer hums in the corner of the open shop floor, spitting out prototype parts for a small team of tinkering developers. An adjacent courtyard serves as an informal landing strip, and Anderson trades his laptop for a flight controller to test a tethered version of a drone that receives power from the ground to hover in place indefinitely—useful for shooting video applications at sporting events. "I'm not much of a golfer, but we're always looking for different ways to use these things," Anderson says as the copter drones 20 feet overhead. "Is that too loud for a golf course?"__________
DRONES FOR SALEAs drones begin to make their way into mainstream consumerism (think Amazon's upcoming delivery-via-drones service previewed on 60 Minutes), you shouldn't be surprised to learn that they have practical applications in golf, too. Here, have some sneaky fun with the most control you'll ever know on a golf course.
Quality consumer drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, to enthusiasts) can sticker anywhere from the price of a new driver to the cost of a new Toyota—depending on the sophistication of the flight and camera controls, payload and flight time. The entry-level (1) Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 costs just $299 but is more than a toy. An integrated fixed-position camera transmits decent video in real time back to your smartphone or tablet via Wi-Fi from up to 165 feet away. The encapsulated rotors give it a sleek, Apple-esque look—it's even sold at the Apple Store—and will protect the copter from user error (i.e., crashes).
The (2) DJI Phantom 2 and the 3D Robotics Iris are super-capable quad-rotor mules for the ubiquitous GoPro camera. The Phantom has aerodynamic body cladding, an integrated gyroscopic camera mount and a larger battery for up to 25 minutes of flight time. It's $1,099, not including camera. Equipped with 3D R's sophisticated control software, the Iris can follow any route you trace on your smartphone map. With camera, gryroscopic mount and case, it costs $1,269.
If you're shooting the next sequel to "Lord of the Rings"—or covering skiing at the Olympics—the (3) Skyjib-8 Titanium comes ready to fly from Aerial Media Pros for $28,900—not including the $50,000 Red Epic digital cinema camera. Eight 15-inch propellers can keep the Skyjib and the 10-pound camera in the air for five to seven minutes. Regardless of the rig you choose, flight rules apply: Always keep the drone within eyesight, away from people and buildings, and below 400 feet. Check the laws in your area to be sure.—M.R.