On a recent sunny afternoon at a solar farm outside Philadelphia, Pa., commercial drone pilots Tony Zimlich and Gunner Goldie are preparing for flight.
Dressed in hard hats and matching yellow vests, they run through a series of safety and equipment checks, and survey the surrounding terrain and airspace, before picking up what looks like a pair of oversized video game controllers. Then, with a streak of beeps and whirs, their drone — about the size of a milk crate — rises steadily into the sky above.
Their mission: to carefully sweep the skyline above the solar farm, taking photographs and gathering data to help their client identify defective solar panels and guide repairs.
"We can do something in 30 minutes which takes two-and-a-half days for a two-man team to inspect," Zimlich says.
That efficiency, Zimlich says, is just one of the reasons that the commercial drone industry is taking off. As drone technology has improved and gotten cheaper over the past decade, it's expanded from military and private hobbyist markets into the commercial and civic marketplace.
Drones are now being deployed to help with emergency response, agriculture, construction, insurance, real estate and infrastructural inspection, in addition to ongoing efforts to develop drone-based delivery systems by companies like Amazon. Goldman Sachs estimates that the civil and commercial drone sector will grow to a $13 billion industry by 2020.
Tony Zimlich didn't expect to be a part of that transition. Unlike many of his younger colleagues, who got their start playing video games and flying remote control aircraft, Zimlich cut his teeth in the cockpit of a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter. Part of his military tenure was spent flying medical evacuation missions above the deserts and valleys of Afghanistan.
Zimlich says that his work as a military pilot was emotionally challenging, but also deeply rewarding. He says that knowing that his decisions could mean life or death for his fellow soldiers helped him tune out the sounds of incoming fire or wind whistling through bullet holes in the aircraft's fuselage. "Weather didn't matter. Gunfire didn't matter," Zimlich says. "Our sole purpose was to get injured soldiers off the battlefield."
When Zimlich made the decision to retire after nearly 20 years in the military, he says that he assumed that finding good paying work as a civilian would be relatively easy. However, after a cursory job search, he realized that he wasn't qualified for many of the better paying positions in civilian aviation, and that he would have to broaden his search in order to support his family.
"I had two kids at the time, so I had mouths to feed. I had bills to pay," he says. "It was really scary when I realized that I needed a job and I don't have any skill set other than flying."
So Zimlich turned to his military colleagues, several of whom suggested that he adapt his skill set and find work piloting unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for a military contractor. At first, Zimlich was hesitant to make the switch. Coming from an aviation background, he viewed drone pilots with a mixture of skepticism and sarcasm.
"In my mind it was the geek squad," Zimlich says, "a bunch of gamers sitting around a console, chatting it up. And I really didn't think that a drone operator could ever be as proficient as a glamorous helicopter pilot."
But when one of his former colleagues explained the work and recommended him for a position as a contract drone pilot, flying surveillance missions for a military contractor in Afghanistan, he decided to give it shot.
Zimlich says that, at first, going from the cockpit to the controller was a strange transition. Remote piloting lacked the sense of physical feedback and exhilaration that came from being in flight.
"But, I didn't really miss it a whole lot," Zimlich says, "because people weren't shooting at me. So, that was a trade off I was willing to make."
After learning the ropes as a military contract pilot, he began to explore the nascent world of commercial drone work. Thanks to recommendations from other military colleagues who had transitioned into the commercial drone industry, Zimlich landed his current position as the lead vertical pilot at a commercial drone startup called Measure, based in Washington, D.C.
Now, at age 40, Zimlich spends much of the year traveling the country, conducting drone-powered inspections of solar farms, wind turbines and cell phone tower networks. He also helps train and coordinate the company's pilot staff.
While Zimlich says he does miss the exhilaration of lifting off the ground in the pilot's seat, he considers himself lucky to have found a way to adapt his aviation skills and to have found a place on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry.
"I think it's a combination of luck, good choices and military friendships," he says. "And now I'm able to repay that favor by recommending veterans that I knew in the Army."
NPR producer Franziska Monahan contributed to the audio version of this story.