AUGUSTA — On a recent weekday afternoon, the weather was wet, blustery and hardly suitable for a drone operator wanting to send his unmanned aircraft into the elements. But Thomas-john Veilleux wasn’t complaining that his own drone — a white contraption with four propellers, a swiveling camera and multicolor lights that blink like a carnival game — was grounded.

It has been earthbound for a while, and Veilleux is taking his time about getting into the sky.

Veilleux, a commercial photographer who often snaps weddings and senior portraits, hadn’t intended to get into drone photography when a client in the real estate industry asked him to use one last year. Veilleux also happens to be a licensed pilot, and it wasn’t long before he had purchased his own $1,300 aircraft and applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for a permit to use it commercially.

“It was just by luck. Once I started flying someone else’s drone, I really liked it,” Veilleux said. “I was already an aviator and already a photographer. I couldn’t not pursue it.”

The process has been long. After Veilleux submitted his application, it took six months for the agency to award the credential. Now he’s taking even more time to understand all the paperwork.

But Veilleux has high hopes that his investment of time and money will bear fruit. To him, aerial photography seems like a growth industry. He hopes that his regular wedding clients and more recent ones in the real estate industry will appreciate the option for aerial shots.

He also would like to extend those services to new clients such as utility companies, which may need to inspect their equipment or have other aerial tasks performed, and is open to performing less conventional tasks — aerial deliveries of packages, search and rescue work — as long as it’s legal and he has the right permits.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are aircraft that are flown by pilots on the ground using computers and remote controls. While they first received attention because of their uses by the U.S. military in its overseas operations, drones have become increasingly popular among photographers, hobbyists and others for a variety of commercial, recreational and governmental purposes.

Where the business of drones is concerned, the sky does appear to be the limit — particularly in more sparsely populated states such as Maine.

Since the commercial permits — known as Section 333 exemptions — were first established in the fall of 2014, more than 4,600 have been issued, according to the FAA. While many permit holders are in states such as Florida and California, fewer than 20 have been issued to operators with addresses in the Pine Tree State, according to a map created with Section 333 data by the drone news website sUAS News. The bulk of them are based around Portland and along the coast.

What’s more, the rate of drone operators applying for those commercial permits has been accelerating, according to Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone, an interdisciplinary department at Bard College.

That demand has been a boon for drone makers. The aviation administration forecasts more than 600,000 drones will be sold to commercial users in 2016, with that figure growing to 2.7 million by 2020. Demand is even greater among drone hobbyists, who are projected to buy 1.9 million this year and 4.3 million by 2020.

While there isn’t concrete data about the market for drone services, Holland Michel, whose department recently issued a report on commercial drone use, said the swell of permit applicants such as

Veilleux signals that there could be a market.

“We can infer from the number of people that are hoping to offer drone services that the demand is there, but it’s very hard to quantify,” Holland Michel said. If anything, he went on, the simple availability of drone services may lead to the creation of a market, such as when real estate agents discover it could help them sell a home.

With all those aircraft zipping about the troposphere, it’s no wonder the government has been conservative about letting people use drones commercially. The aviation agency is now drafting a more uniform set of rules for commercial operators, but it currently treats applications on a case-by-case basis and awards them with many conditions attached.

Now Veilleux must always perform commercial drone work with a person who can keep an eye on his craft. He must not fly the craft higher than 400 feet or within 500 feet of other people or structures unless they meet a set of criteria. He must notify airport managers whenever he is using the craft. The list goes on.

Commercial operators also must be licensed pilots, and Veilleux said his own experience flying planes makes him appreciate all those safety requirements. He has even paid an aerospace consulting firm in Minnesota to help him navigate them.

The irony, he pointed out, is that the permitting process is far easier for recreational drone users, who don’t need formal training in the laws of the sky and could be more likely to break them, knowingly or not.

The FAA does takes enforcement action against commercial drone operators who break the rules, a spokesperson said in response to emailed questions. The agency is seeking a $1.9 million civil penalty against SkyPan International, a Chicago photography company that allegedly flew drones through congested airspace and broke the terms of its commercial licensing 65 times.

The agency also maintains a database of complaints about incidents of drone interference. It includes one case reported at Portland International Jetport and another near the old Maine Yankee nuclear plant in Wiscasset.

In most cases, though, Holland Michel said, it is hard for the federal agency to enforce its own regulations.

“If someone flies a drone a mile from an airport for 10 minutes, it’s not like an alarm goes off in a building in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “No one knows it happens unless a pilot or someone files a report.”

While it is difficult to know who breaks the rules, Holland Michel said the temptation may be greater for hobbyists who have not jumped through the same hoops as commercial users to get an operating license. A commercial operator would have much more to lose by breaking those rules, he said.

By breaking into a relatively new industry, Veilleux said he has two goals. One is to learn the rules and help others understand them. The other is simply to get into the field before it explodes.

“I think the potential has not yet been realized for it,” he said. “There are other areas of the country where drones are growing in popularity, and people are making careers out of growing these drone services. I would like lead the way in developing this industry in central Maine, which is why it’s so exciting for me.”

Veilleux has lined up one potential gig this summer, in which he may take pictures at a so-called “color run” in Augusta, in which participants cover themselves in colored powders and run. He is still lining up his paperwork for that event, monitoring the rule changes and hoping the FAA doesn’t impose any new restrictions that would force him to back out.

Veilleux also met several potential clients at a wedding show recently, he said, “and the moment you mention the possibility of a drone at a wedding, most people are very enthused by that.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642
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Twitter: @ceichacker