The sky's the limit for Merrimack drone startupBy DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader
March 26. 2016 5:35PM
MERRIMACK — A former Apple executive and his son have set up shop in Merrimack with one of the few FAA commercial licenses to operate a drone business in New Hampshire, and that business is about to take off — literally and figuratively.
Rick Spitz, who with his son, John, launched SI Drones four years ago, recently received his waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones commercially. The FAA had until last year prohibited commercial drone operation, restricting use of the remote-controlled aircraft to hobbyists.
That all changed when Congress ordered the aviation bureaucracy to come up with rules to enable commercial work, which led to a waiver program that is not easy to navigate.
About 4,000 waivers, or licenses to operate commercially, have been granted nationwide by the FAA since the program was introduced last year. They are not parsed by state on the FAA website, but Spitz estimates 10 or fewer have been granted so far in New Hampshire.
Each drone Spitz plans to use commercially has to be FAA registered and licensed for commercial use. He had to find insurance, recruit or train licensed pilots to operate the devices, and obtain operating agreements with the airports in Nashua and Manchester.
The company's business for the past three years has been based mostly on selling “build-your-own” drone kits to hobbyists, from the website sidrones.com. With the FAA license in hand, the father-son team is ready to branch out, with their manufacturing and testing site in Merrimack and a sales/service office in the Nashua millyard
“We have lined up some customer agreements and pilots, and we're ready to turn the business on,” Spitz said.
That business will consist largely of aerial videos and photography for real estate agents, developers, surveyors — even media companies looking for aerial videos at accident scenes.
“A lot of real estate agents are very interested,” he said, “especially for upscale properties where people want to see the land surrounding the buildings.”
Early days of drones
Spitz compares the drone business today to the advent of the personal computer, when hobbyists built their own.
“We are still in those early days,” he said. “But we are starting to transition drones into the commercial arena.”
The 62-year-old entrepreneur has the experience to make that observation, given his long history in the high-tech industry, starting with 15 years at now-defunct Digital Equipment Corp., before moving over to Apple as head of the operating system division.
By 1996, having watched many of his peers leave the corporate world to launch their own startups, he decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge.
He's been involved in many startups over the years, including a financial services firm, an online gaming company and an online marketing company for small businesses that went public in 2010.
More recently, he decided to settle down in Merrimack along a winding rural road where he had a classic New England post-and-beam barn built to house all the gadgetry and tools, including a $5,000 3-D printer, to launch SI Drones.
It's not an easy business to get into.
The licensing requirements are elaborate, and the costs can be high.
Commercial drones like the ones Spitz uses cost about $4,000, and that's before software purchases, insurance and pilot training.
The idea for the enterprise came from his son, John, who for years was involved in the Southern New Hampshire Flying Eagles, a remote-control aeronautics club based in Merrimack and founded in 1986, using mostly fixed-wing models.
“John's been doing remote controlled aircraft forever, and the technology has been evolving,” Spitz said. “So one day he said, ‘Dad, why don't we do some drone stuff?'?We really thought we were going to get into the robotics business, but you know what, flying robots are much more interesting, and that's essentially what a drone is, so we shifted from robots to drones.”
At first they developed kits for hobbyists, with the help of paid interns from Souhegan High School in nearby Amherst. They manufactured most of the components on their 3-D printer, and developed their own software to control altitude, stabilize cameras and otherwise manage the drone experience.
Eventually they partnered with Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., to launch a class on drones that came to be known among students as “The Game of Drones.”
While the business potential of SI Drones, a subsidiary of Spitz Industrial Design, has Rick Spitz optimistic about the future, he says the work with students and interns is what excites him the most at this point in his career. “I want to give back to society,” he said, “to help grow and train the next generation of technology entrepreneurs.”