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Why Your Print Shop Needs a Drone

It's time to showcase your shop's offerings from new heights.

When we look at equipment purchases for our wide-format print businesses, we typically think of printing, finishing, and installation equipment. Thrown into the mix are computers and related electronics, systems for phones, electrical and compressed air, and so on. Many shops also have a decent or professional-grade digital camera to record images of jobs they are proud of. These images populate company brochures, PowerPoint presentations, thumb drives, websites, and offices. This not only shows off the great work your company has done, but can also exemplify the quality of the printing it took to produce the graphics. With great project images, there’s also an opportunity to be featured in magazines like this one.


At Pictographics, we categorize images into applications like glass printing, soft signage, interior décor, vehicle graphics, events, etc. We upload them to our photo album website; each category has its own album. We make these albums private so only those people or companies we send the link to can visit them. This is handy when someone inquires about a product like architectural glass. We can send them a link to the album that contains 20 or 30 images of our most impressive installations from the past 10 years. This album speaks volumes because it shows we have offered printed, laminated, and tempered safety glass for more than a decade. The installations range from small and custom to large and impressive so that no job is too challenging or too big or even too small.


Capturing the Image
A quality, modern, digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera is capable of 1080p high-definition (HD) video. Some of the latest cameras can record in 4K or ultra-high definition (UHD). Why does that matter? Because videos can capture the dynamics of your graphics installations better than still images. That’s why we spend $17 to go to the movies: We like moving pictures.


Then there’s the fact that sites like YouTube and Vimeo exist. For free, you can upload HD, and in some cases UHD, videos of your projects with narrative to these sites. A simple link in an email puts an existing or prospective customer one click away from an impressive video demonstration of your completed projects. As with still images, these video clips can be integrated into PowerPoint presentations, thumb drives, and the company website.


For these reasons, we’ve been willing to invest in professional camera equipment. Apple introduced one of the first digital cameras called the QuickTake 100 in 1994, a few months after we opened our doors. This camera took and stored up to eight 640 x 480 dpi, 24-bit images, and sold for $749. Those specifications are hysterical today. Naturally, we bought one, and have never looked back on the digital-image-capture revolution. This development happened at the birth of the public internet and the introduction of email. The ability to visit a job site and email a picture to the client within an hour was unprecedented and justified the investment.


Today, how often do you send and receive digital pictures and videos in your email correspondence? It has become ubiquitous. We’re in the imaging business. We are part of an ecosystem that relies on communicating through images.


Putting it into Practice
But what does all of this have to do with why you should be compelled to buy a drone? Simple: The drone is a revolutionary new platform for those still and video cameras we view as being invaluable to our business. A drone takes our image capturing ability to new heights – pun intended.

Because some graphic installations can be so huge, it’s difficult to stand at ground level and capture their enormity and visual drama. The only way to visually encapsulate a graphically adorned structure like a stadium wrapped inside and out, a huge tradeshow booth, a decorated hall with hundreds of individual graphics, or the tops of wrapped racecar haulers and motorhomes, is to capture images by flying the camera above, around, and through using a drone.


We once printed and installed a 150-foot EA Sports logo on the top of a stadium for the NBA All-Star Game. The only way the image could be captured for the broadcast was for the customer to rent a helicopter. With a drone, we could have provided that service for a fraction of the cost of the helicopter, pilot, and videographer.


Like many of you, we have decorated huge structures for outdoor exhibits. One of our clients is a major heavy-equipment manufacturer. We have done exhibits for them in Las Vegas, Florida, Kentucky, Atlanta, Paris, and Hannover, Germany. For all those shows, only in Las Vegas could we rent a high-rise hotel room where we could get high enough to photograph the installation in its entirety. A drone would have made our job significantly faster and cheaper, and the result far better.


Certification
There are two options if you decide to make the move to drones for dramatic image and video capture. The easiest is to find a certified drone airman with a capable drone in your area and hire his or her services. This option won’t be cheap, but it will be significantly less expensive than renting helicopter time. And you can’t fly a helicopter indoors.


The second choice is to buy and fly a drone of your own. The good news is as of August of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released regulations to clarify the rules for legally flying drones for commercial purposes. The FAA now allows us to legally fly drones and set the parameters for how they are to be flown. As someone who flies drones recreationally and has been following this development, I found the regulations to be more open and generous than many of us anticipated.


In years past, to become certified to fly a drone commercially (a requirement by law) took many months and at least $20,000, plus the initial cost of purchasing a drone. This all proved to be a significant barrier to entry.


In August, the FAA established an entirely new and much more reasonable process to attain a “remote pilot Airman Certificate.”
According to a statement by Anthony Foxx, US secretary of transportation, we are in “one of the most dramatic periods of change in the history of transportation.” The FAA expects that within a year, 600,000 commercial drones will be in use in America. To put this in perspective, currently only about 20,000 drones are licensed for commercial use.


Final Purchase
Drones are getting more capable, smaller, easier to fly, and less expensive to buy. So, the beginner now has a much lower response cost to become a remote pilot airman in terms of learning curve and price of admission, and these new drones are becoming more capable with longer flight times and ever-better camera systems. Cameras have increased in resolution and other qualitative measures that mirror the development in handheld cameras. The best systems include a stabilizing gimbal for the camera. These gimbals typically employ a six-axis gyroscopically controlled mounting system where the image capture remains both stable and perfectly horizontal regardless of the motion or altitude of the drone, just like they do in Hollywood.


I won’t single out any drone brands, but I have my eye on three for commercial use. One of them is very small and foldable and can be carried in a bag you would use for a digital SLR. It has a controller with a screen to allow you to see where you are flying from the drone’s point of view. It shoots 4K video at 30 frames per second and 1080p video at up to 96 frames per second. For photos, it has a 12-megapixel camera that records in Raw format on a built-in camera with a stabilized gimbal. You can fly it using its controller or using your smartphone. There are too many other features to list here; it’s a robust option. Oh, and MSRP is only $1200.


I ran down the specifications of this specific drone because it is representative of what has become a very competitive market. Each of these drone manufacturers wants a piece of that projected 600,000-unit market. So, will you join the market, become one of those remote pilot airmen, and take your print shop’s image capture to another level?

Read more "Inside Output" from Craig Miller or explore the rest of our November/December "Wrap Insanity" issue.

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