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East County Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018 4 years ago

Drone company has sky-high business goals in Lakewood Ranch

Pilots hope drone business takes them to new heights.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It was July of 2016 and Chad Cox was preparing to literally launch a new business.

He and partner C.J. Carlock were intrigued with drones and the endless possibilities for their use. So Cox looked into software he could purchase that could run his drones on a multitude of tasks.

"I was out testing a software provider's program," said Cox, who lives in Rosedale. "The drone was supposed to photograph a subdivision. When it finished, it was coming down and it was about chest high in front of me.

"Then the controls went haywire. The drone went full speed at my chest, hit me and bounced off. It looked like I had a fight with Wolverine. I had slashes and cuts on my chest from the props."

This wasn't going to be easy.

Entering 2018, Cox and Carlock have made slow, steady progress with their 4C Drone Solution, which is based at Cox's home in Rosedale. They received their license from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate their drones for profit in September of 2016.

Since then, they been hired for myriad tasks. They've worked for producers making movies and a country western singer working on a video. They shot film for real estate brokers and parcels for construction companies and developers. They've done flood mitigation work and have been employed by roofing contractors trying to figure out bids.

A big part of their future, however, might be working for the farming industry.

Cox said their drones can produce photos and video that can identify plant stress, pest infestation and drainage issues. Their work can help with soil and field analysis and crop monitoring.

So with hundreds of farmers in the Manatee and Sarasota counties area, what's holding them up?

Chad Cox and C.J. Carlock have been friends for 20 years and they are both pilots.

"It's just getting people to sit and talk with us," Cox said.

On Jan. 13, Cox was making his pitch to Tom O'Brien, the owner of O'Brien Family Farms in Bradenton. He planned to fly one of his five drones over one of O'Brien's fields and then send the data back to the business owner.

"Humans can inspect things with a magnifying glass," O'Brien said. "But if this can pinpoint problems we miss, that's good."

O'Brien said he respects new technologies, but he remains skeptical. He said he tested a robotic strawberry picker that didn't work so well. He had had other drone operations submit reports to him., and passed

"The problems with technology is that it changes to quickly," he said. "When do we jump in?"

C.J. Carlock watches his partner, Chad Cox, demonstrate the flying capabilities of a drone.

O'Brien said he wasn't sure if his 300-acres were enough to make a drone useful. "I can walk my fields," he said.

Undaunted, Cox assembled a drone and went to work. He already has been signed up by a citrus producer in Arcadia and is near closing a deal with farmers in the Myakka City area.

"It's been a time saver for farmers," Cox said. "They can focus on their problem areas. One of the farms we worked for saw they had a problem area. They found they had a buried pipeline going across the field."

The idea for the business itself was hashed out on a barstool after Carlock was playing a tavern golf video game called Golden Tee. Carlock, who lives in Palmetto, was impressed with the aerial views the game gave of golf courses.

Chad Cox programs his software to fly a drone over O'Brien Family Farms.

Both Cox and Carlock are pilots for Netjets, which is a private business jet charter service. The 20-year friends talked about starting a business where they could spend more time at home with their family.

Cox had bought a drone as a Christmas present for his oldest son, Riley, who now is 19. 

By the time the night was over, they had made their initial plans. 4C Drone Solution was born.

"We started with two drones and did mostly real estate," Cox said. "But a lot of agents are (operating drones) on their own. The FAA has just started to govern the process."

Cox said his company doesn't have much professional competition. However, he does lose business to amateurs who he said are operating their drones illegally.

For every job, 4C Drone Solution has to file an application with the FAA that must be approved. A route has to be traced out and the FAA then issues a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), so pilots know a drone is operating in the area.

The drone can't fly over any people and the FAA has a long list of regulations that need to be followed.

Cox said the FAA is just starting to crack down on violators, which he believes ultimately will help his business.

As far as size, their biggest drone weighs seven pounds and has a five-mile range. Their biggest drone is the DJI Inspire II, which cost $8,00o and can fly 65 mph.

They are required by law to be within line of sight of any job they are doing, so they can't stay home and launch one.

Riley Cox actually is the new company's best operator, capitalizing on his video game skills. "Chad Cox and Carlock laugh about it that they are jet pilots who originally found flying a drone to be very complicated. "Riley can fly circles around me," Cox said.

Rosedale's Chad Cox flies one of his five drones over O'Brien Family Farms to do a crop analysis.

Both families are entrenched in the business. Cox's wife, Anita, handles many of the financial issues. C.J.'s wife, , handles advertising and marketing. Cox's 15-year-old son Brandon just bought an indoor drone that the company can use.

Anita Cox has a background in photography, which is important since all the drones carry a camera.

"The camera has so many different settings and resolutions, frames per second. It's very complicated," Chad Cox said.

Asked how long the two friends would chase their dream, Cox said he wasn't sure. While he wants people to know that drones aren't just toys, he has discovered something else.

"They sure are fun," he said.

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