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Soaring to new heights: How the Georgia Drone Pilots group is taking off

This article appears in the January issue of  400 Life Magazine

Whether it’s Sawnee Mountain, Lake Lanier, the sights of Atlanta or even just some friends enjoying a campfire, Jack Jeffery gets camera shots that would usually be impossible.

For the last 15 years or so, Jeffery has been learning to fly drones, using them for his business and, earlier this year, began an online group, Georgia Drone Pilots, as a place where drone operators and those interested in getting into the hobby can plan meet-ups, trade tips and generally communicate with each other.

“There’s pilots from all walks of life coming together,” Jeffery said, “and I think that’s what’s so great is that they come out and we share the same interests, flying these drones, for different reasons, whether it’s photography or cinematography or … mapping or jobs or as an amateur, as a hobby, and it’s really bonded us together and formed these friendships.”

Jeffery said the group has grown fast and already has more than 1,000 members with some members in Forsyth County and the surrounding area, others coming from places like Macon or Savannah and even some members coming from surrounding states like North Carolina or Florida just to attend the meetings.

“It’s really amazing that people are coming from such distances to come and join us for the meet-up,” he said.

Along with the members coming from different areas, they also come with varying levels of experience, from experienced flyers to those who are just getting interested in the hobby.

- photo by Kelly Whitmire

“We’ve got people that come to the group that don’t even have a drone yet, and they’re asking us what drone [to get], then by the next meet-up they’ve got a drone, then the next meet-up they’re posting photos, then videos, then all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Wow, look at the progress,” Jeffery said.

“The technology is just so amazing how far [it’s come.] For me, watching it from 2005 until now, these kids are learning faster. If I were growing up and I were 16 again, this would definitely be something that would turn my head and interest me in this industry because it’s only getting bigger.”

While there are many differences in the individual members of the group, there are some similarities.

At a recent meetup at Central Park off Keith Bridge Road, many of the members could be seen flying very similar types of drones compared to the varieties of styles that would be present at other hobby groups, like those for cars or guitars.

Jeffery said most of the drones are DJI Mavic Air 2s and Mavic Pro 2s, which he called “top of the line” due to their interface and technology and said the lighter weight meant they did not have to be registered with the FAA.

- photo by Kelly Whitmire

“The reason why is DJI really has a grip on the industry; they’re kind of like the Apple of the industry. I think it’s like 80% sold are from DJI right now,” Jeffery said.

Near the end of the meet-up, Jeffery broke out a larger DJI drone, the Inspire 2, a commercial film drone with interchangeable lenses that “give you that nice depth on it.”

“This is going to be used on more high-end jobs,” he said. “Usually, you have one to two pilots on this, you can do two controls.”

Jeffery said along with being a hobby, he also relies on drones for his professional roles as a Realtor and producer.

“I got involved with it because I wanted to add that aerial shot to my video clips and maybe an opening scene to the story-telling,” Jeffery said.

Along the way, Jeffery said he made connections and learned more about flying drones and was able to incorporate those lessons into projects.

For the Forsyth County News

“I love doing it,” he said. “I’m a storyteller and I’m passionate about it. This is what drives me. Chasing the story, making that creative content, that’s what makes me feel alive.”

During the Central Park meet-up park rangers approached the pilots as they flew drones to make sure they were doing so within guidelines.

Luckily, one of the rangers had his own drone and was able to talk shop with some of the members while advising them of local rules.

Jeffery said since drones are a fairly new hobby, he and the other members of the group were often answering questions others might have.

“They don’t want us flying over the soccer games, which we shouldn’t be anyway, but they should be checking and making sure nothing is wrong,” he said. “This is an aircraft we’re putting in the air ... and we need to be safe. People need to know, before they go out … and get one, what they’re getting into.”

As drones become more popular and people find new ways to use them for work, as a hobby or even as a sport — a new sports drone used for racing tops 100 mph — Jeffery said “the drone industry is in an exciting time right now,” and recommended anyone who is interested in flying drones to get involved as the hobby takes off.

“I would get my hands on one. I would start learning about [the certifications for flying certain drones]. I think the rules are changing, so you’re going to have to take a test anyway, but you should have the knowledge because you are putting an aircraft in the air,” Jeffery said. “Safety is number one at the end of the day.”