When the city of Delaware needed a close look last month at the top of the London Road water tower, 160 feet above the ground, it didn't enlist a contractor, a lineworker or even a daredevil.
Instead, it turned to city communications specialist Dale Oates, a 2019 graduate of Ohio State University.
He fired up his four-motor drone – about 16 inches across and equipped with a high-definition camera – to examine the top of the tower.
He can do that because he is licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration as a commercial drone pilot.
Piloting the buzzing aircraft, controlled by radio or an internet signal, is only one of the tasks Oates performs for the city, said Lee Yoakum, city community affairs coordinator.
"He assists with all of our communications, marketing and public relations," Yoakum said. "He runs several of our social-media campaigns, oversees the city website and does graphic design, as well."
But Oates' drone skills are a definite plus, Yoakum said.
"Drone photographs capture our attention because they offer us glimpses from perspectives we don't generally see on a daily basis," he said. "Our use of drone video and photos, in our marketing and promotion, literally allows the city of Delaware to stand out above the crowd.
"We also are finding its value with other departments, providing visual information from a unique vantage point," he said.
Other recent jobs for the drone, Yoakum said, were an examination of surface-lot parking spaces and layouts, photos of city facilities for department presentations, artwork for the city's successful Great Places in America application and overhead views of the Greenwood Lake draining and culvert.
The water-tower flight was needed so an antenna could be placed on the structure, part of a month-long cleaning, painting and maintenance project, Yoakum said.
Oates said he got his first drone while in junior high school.
"I've always been interested in being up in the air and things that fly," he said. "Kids are fascinated with planes and helicopters. I love flying (the drone) and seeing things from a different perspective."
Oates said anyone can fly a drone recreationally by registering with the FAA.
Commercial drone operation, however, requires the FAA license – and it takes work to get one, he said.
Oates first earned his license three years ago by passing a 70-question written exam that followed 20 to 30 hours of study, he said.
The license is good for two years, and he said he renewed his by passing a refresher exam in October.
Recreational drone pilots can't take the machine more than 400 feet above ground level, he said.
By comparison, he said, a commercial drone pilot can operate 400 feet above whatever they are photographing, such as the water tower.
As a matter of routine, he said, 800 feet above the ground is the limit for a commercial drone, he said, adding that 1,200 feet above the ground and higher is reserved for piloted aircraft.
Local regulations also affect drone operation, he said.
For example, all U.S. national parks and Columbus city parks ban the use of drones. The National Park Service has its own drone operators, Oates said.
Commercial drone operators also have to pay attention to details, he said.
"I have a working knowledge of (aeronautical) charts and airspace in local regions," he said.
Oates said he listens to radio frequencies, pays attention to the weather and contacts local air-traffic control.
The FAA licenses commercial-drone operators, he said, because drone flying can be tricky, and the FAA wants to make sure operators are flying as safely as possible.
"The biggest thing to be aware of when flying a drone is your surroundings and doing it safely," Oates said. "It's very important that you have the knowledge to manage the situation if something goes wrong."
One risk is losing radio contact with the drone, he said, which can be mitigated by starting with a good operating position.
Some drones are equipped with GPS that lets them return to their starting point; resetting the radio signal is another option, he said.
Flying a straight path with a drone is easy and has a "good wow factor," Oates said, but getting good video while flying the drone in a circle takes about a year of consistent flying to master.
"Your proficiency gets better with time and practice," he said. "It's tricky at first."
His drone's camera isn't much bigger than a cellphone camera, he said, and a monitor on his controller shows him what the camera is recording.
The drone's four propellers each are controlled by a different motor, with two props turning clockwise and two counter-clockwise, he said.
The motors are powered by lithium batteries that can last up to 30 minutes if they aren't driven too fast, he said.
Oates marked his one-year anniversary with the city July 1. He earlier worked on Dublin's economic-development team and completed an internship with the city of Columbus in marketing communications.