10 things every operator needs to know about drones

Brady Wilson, general manager at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club, has been flying a drone around his Arizona course for over a year now. Several other Troon-managed facilities, including The Gallery Golf Club and Abu Dhabi Golf Club, have embraced the technological wonder. While they make a great conversation piece, as Wilson says, there is much to learn before owning and operating a drone at a golf course facility. The members and guests love them, and they can provide a lot more than just Facebook photos (They're great for YouTube videos too!).

Here are the top 10 things every golf course operator needs to know about drones:

10. Practice makes perfect

“Go into a wide open field and just practice to just make sure you have the skills you’ll need to fly it before you try to fly it and record,” Wilson said. “Doing a little bit of research and practice on the front end will save you a lot of headaches and/or the cost of a drone if it doesn't make sense for you. You can drive it  line-of-sight, but it gets more than 30 or 40 feet away from you, you have to fly strictly off of what the camera is seeing. You see the camera view on your mobile device like a phone or iPad, and then you’re flying through the camera. Take off and landing is in eyesight of the actual drone, but once it's in the air, you are really looking at the screen of your phone to fly it. I haven’t had any major crashes; I did crash it into a tree and it lived. We brushed the side of a building lightly. But both of those instances I was not looking at the screen; I was trying to line-of-sight fly it and depth perception wise, you just can’t do that.”

9. Drones intrigue your guests and members

“It builds excitement. The Casino that the Ak-Chin community owns runs some concerts. They had a David Nail concert outside and they said come fly the drone and take some pictures. The pictures are cool, but it just drew attention. Everybody loves seeing the drone fly by. It's a great content generator, but it is also just a great conversation piece.”

8. Don’t fly them during a round

“At take off and landing, everybody knows you’re flying a drone. It does sound like a swarm of bees when it takes off and it can probably be a little distracting. Unless I’m flying it very high, you can hear it. So I don’t typically fly it over golfers while they’re golfing unless it’s an event and they know it’s coming and they want it out there. I try to get more landscape still shots of the facility without golfers in it because I don’t want to disturb them.”

7. The cost of an aerial shot is a fraction of what it used to be 

“After your get a professional photographer and rent either a helicopter or if you really want to go higher up, a small plane, and you pay the fuel costs, the cheapest quote I ever saw was about $6,500. And you don't know what kind of quality you’re getting. They go up, they take the photos they can and you might get five or ten shots out of them. The drone cost about $1,500 after you buy an extra battery and a case, which I highly recommend.”

6. They create unmatched content for social media

“Anytime we post anything on social media that's a drone shot or video, our Facebook likes, retweets and our Instagram likes — those number go up exponentially when it is drone photography. Looking at your numbers you go from 500 views to 1500 views and you go ‘wow, what’s the difference?’ Well, most of the time it is because of the drone footage.”

5. But it’s more than just a pretty picture

“When I got it, I totally thought that was what it was for: content, marketing and social media. But as soon as we got it, we had kind of a crazy rush of flooding that came through our golf course. The flooding was so bad that FEMA was involved, so I flew the drone and took some pictures. Well, those are not pretty golf photos, but it was able to show how the water was creeping outside the banks of the wash and the wash wasn't doing its job. A wash is designed to get water through the property as fast as possible to the other side but what was happening is the water was getting backed up and clogging. The wash itself has been overgrown. [Without the drone], you’re talking about getting the Army Corps of Engineers involved and site inspections. It could have been a two or three year process, but because I had those aerial photos we were able to accelerate that process very fast to get that FEMA assistance working on our washes.”

4. Drones can also bring in additional retail revenue

“I’ve used it for a group photo for a golf school we had.  It was a bunch of ladies and I said ‘let’s take a group photo with the drone.’ It was kind of impromptu and every single one of them wanted a copy. We had them printed out, framed and sent to them. It turned into revenue for us as a retail piece. We marked it up over our hard costs.

Depending on frame and quality of print, you’d be surprised how cheap you can get them. You can get them down to that $25 - $30 range for the guest, which means your wholesale cost is $10 to $15. The thing there is the production. For me to take a drone photo, throw it on a USB drive and run to Costco to print off eight photos, buy eight frames, throw them in there and sell it to somebody is real easy to do. To do 144 pictures while they’re out golfing, you’ve got to have that special printer and we don’t have that currently. If we know we’re going to have a group that wants drone photography produced into a hard photo, we have to set that up in advance. That’s just [a matter of ] getting in touch with the right people.”

3. Everyone has a different way of using it 

“I got a phone call yesterday from the community manager who wants aerial photos of the walkways they’re putting in in stages so they can see the before, during construction and after. There’s no wrong or right reason to use it.”

2. Make sure to check the restrictions

“Make sure you look around into what the legal restrictions would be. If you have homes on your property, you can get into some privacy issues if there are people sunbathing or something like that. I would just really look at how you imagine your facility would look from an aerial shot. If it doesn’t pose any problems, I would absolutely go after it.”

 1. They are not as hard to fly as you think


“I would say my seven year old could run it. He’s really good at remote controlled cars. We all grew up with those. And if you kind of feel uncoordinated at first, go play with your son’s remote control car. If you’re pretty adept at driving that car, you’ll be fine with the drone. If you’re crashing the car into the wall, you might want to practice a bit. The biggest things you have to watch out for are trees, buildings and power lines.” 


This seems like an incredible solution to many and varied needs for aerial shots of a golf property. Thanks for a great article and a great idea.

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