JP resident Julio Aguilar had always been drawn to flight – and as a kid in his na-tive Florida, that took the form of air shows and airplane mechanics.
He said he grew up with his father frequently working on an airplane fuselage in his garage.
He dreamed of one day being in the cockpit of some sort of flying machine, but as it turns out, though he is full-on into the world of flying, he has yet to leave the ground.
Aguilar is one of the few licensed drone pilots in the area, amongst a sea of drone pilots operating illegally or without the knowledge that one needs to be licensed. Instead of sitting in a cockpit, he stands comfortably on the ground with the flight controls in his hands.
Drones, known as unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aircraft sys-tems (UAS), have really taken flight in the last few years due to lower pricing and more availability of quality machines, and for those that know what they’re doing – Aguilar said the possibilities are endless.
“It is a growing industry,” he said. “A lot of companies are turning to UAVs or UASs. United Parcel Service (UPS) is doing a lot with that. They have begun shipping medical supplies across hospital campuses in North Carolina. Even in Boston, MassDOT (Department of Transportation) is utilizing them for bridge maintenance inspections. Buildings are also older here, and it’s a lot easier and safer to send a drone up to look at potential repairs than it is to set up a scaf-fold and have someone go up to look.
“The time will come when more and more of these are used,” he added, noting that in China they have experimented with using drones to fight fires on high-rise buildings. “It’s not so much for surveillance, but for search and rescue. These things can be applied in so many ways, and we’ve only scratched the surface. For a small piece of machinery like this, it can really make people’s lives so much easier.”
All that said, drones have a bad rap in the general public.
So many people associate them with ‘Big Brother,’ spying or creepy surveil-lance. They also get a bad reputation with flying professionals due to the num-ber of people who fly them without a license and in restricted air space – with many near misses on commercial airliners reported.
“There is a bad stigma with these things right now,” he said. “By and large, people think we’re using them to spy on them. The funny thing is, most drones cannot really zoom in on the ground. From 100 yards, you can’t see much of anything – no facial expressions or anything. There are a lot of people who don’t get licensed, and they should. It’s the right thing to do, and they end up doing dangerous things without knowing any better. It only takes a few bad ac-tors to mess this up for all the rest of the pilots. If you want to use these, you need to make sure you’re legal.”
He said drones are capable of taking down a 737 jet if someone doesn’t know what they’re doing – a fact proven recently by collision testing done at Ohio State University involving drones hitting airliners.
“It can be disastrous if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “Some con-sider it a toy. I consider it a serious tool.”
The sudden popularity of drones over the last few years has a lot to do with ac-cessibility and price. About 10 years ago, serious drones were only available at specialty stores and cost about $40,000. That kept the hobbyists and thrill-seekers away from the industry. Now, the market is flooded with cheap toy drones that have very weak signals at places like Wal-Mart, but also very seri-ous drones that can be purchased at places like Best Buy for only a few thou-sand dollars. That has lent itself to drones getting into far more hands, and many of those getting drones don’t understand what they’re getting into. That’s where the licensing portion comes in and helps to educate users about just what it is they are flying.
To be legal, one has to take an exam from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and get what is known as a 14-CFR-107 – or a drone pilot license, which costs about $105 in fees. Aguilar said he studied for about three months, and the test is difficult. One has to be able to read maps and charts, understand aircraft flight paths and operations, and know how to understand where re-stricted airspaces are located. That is a key to the industry, and Aguilar uses an app provided by the FAA to map out restricted airspace and flight re-strictions in real time for most any location in Greater Boston. That’s something that changes by the minute, and it’s important for a pilot to understand the charts while they are flying.
He relayed a story from last fall when Mayor Martin Walsh was in the Jamaica Pond area, and a sudden flight restriction was implemented in the area. At the time, he was flying his drone nearby, and it automatically shut down and land-ed.
“I had no control over it,” he said. “It just broke away from me and landed sud-denly. I checked the app and there was a temporary flight restriction in my general location. Later I found out that Mayor Walsh was at Jamaica Pond and that is what caused it.”
Other places with serious restrictions are around Logan Airport, and there are ‘no fly’ zones at the US Capitol and in Disney World – among other places.
Aguilar, 38, has been in JP for a little while, but has already lent his services to the Loring Greenough House, and other local organizations – not to mention STEM programs at his kids’ school in Brighton.
The endless applications, however, came into view for Aguilar when he was out-side flying in Florida a few years ago. That’s when he realized that his drone was more than just a fun flying machine, but actually the wave of the future in just about every area of life.
“It clinched it for me when one of my neighbors in Florida put solar panels on his house,” said Aguilar. “He didn’t want to climb up on the roof and asked me if I could use the drone to check out the work that was done on the installation. A bell went ‘ding’ for me. That’s when I realized I should probably go outside the box of just photo and video. As I began to think about it, I realized that these could be used to help people and to save lives…This is a tool that can help. They can and do save lives.”