In late 2016, Michael E. Jordan wanted to boost holiday sales for his fledgling athletic-wear company, UNRL, which is based in  St. Paul. So he hired a drone operator to shoot some sweeping aerial footage of the city--his hometown--and created a video interspersing that footage with mannequins and people wearing UNRL clothing.

The video went viral, getting 50,000 Facebook views, and, Jordan says, UNRL's sales over that Black Friday weekend tripled the prior year's. The company now counts the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks as a client. And Jordan continues to make videos with drones. "We're not Nike and didn't have $100,000," Jordan says. For his first drone video, "I spent just $1,000--which included editing, shooting, and renting the drone." Like other founders, Jordan has found drones can be used creatively, to make doing tasks faster, cheaper, and safer--even for businesses that don't seem like a natural fit for the technology. 

Going underground

Hired by insurance companies to investigate claims, Jeremy Reynolds, COO of forensics investigation firm RTI Group, in Stevensville, Maryland, had a client that wanted a mine surveyed. Underground, and presumably unstable, the mine posed a problem: The site was too unsafe to send a person into, and a rolling robot could get blocked by debris. Reynolds's solution? A drone.

Drone On
Key facts and figures behind this trending technology
Number of remote pilot certificates issued by the FAA as of September 2017
Year the FAA first required remote-pilot certificates
Typical fee test centers charge to administer the Part 107 exam
7 million
Number of drones the FAA believes will have been sold in the U.S. by 2020
Amount you can expect to pay, per hour, for on-demand drone insurance
List price of a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone, including a built-in camera
Sources: FAA, DJI, Verifly

Flying a drone underground is hardly simple: There's no access to GPS and you can't watch the drone as it flies. But it worked, says Reynolds, and he can't think of another way the mine could have been surveyed. "With the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], we got around issues we couldn't have otherwise," he says.

Drone cowboy

Cody Creelman, a veterinarian based in Airdrie, Alberta, travels hundreds of miles to visit cattle ranchers who are clients of Veterinary Agri-Health Services, where he's co-owner and managing partner. Creelman bought his first drone, a DJI Phantom 3, for about 800 Canadian dollars (roughly U.S.$600) in 2016.

Besides using the drone to shoot video blogs, Creelman puts the UAV out to pasture to make sure all cattle are rounded up while he runs medical exams such as pregnancy tests.

Typically, a ranch hand is sent on horseback to double-check that all the animals are counted. But with his drone, Creelman can buzz a field in minutes. And the cows don't mind the whirligig flying in their faces. "Cows don't look for predators from above, so they react well and don't even look up," he says, "and the farmers love the technology." Creelman also uses his drone footage, he says, "to develop training materials for my cattle ranchers, by creating customized management protocols based on aerial photographs of their farms."

Rooftop views

Clients hire Kevin McGrath, a Sylvania, Ohio-based home inspector, to ensure that the multimillion-dollar houses they're buying are in good shape. But a fall on the job ripped up his ankle and left him hobbling--and it's hard to check on roof conditions when you're on crutches. So he spent $2,200 on a drone. McGrath has found that his drone can operate so precisely that he can examine minute chimney cracks while staying safely on the ground.

McGrath's next step will be attaching a thermal camera to the drone. During the Midwest's blustery winters, homes and factories lose a lot of heat if they're not properly insulated. A thermal reading of a structure's walls and rooftops shows property owners where repairs will save them serious money. "If you can offer a lot more than another inspector, you're going to grab a bigger audience," says McGrath. "People are going to love it."

What to Know Before You Fly

Before launching your drone, you'll need to keep a few rules in mind. Fear not, though--they're not especially onerous. And, as Megan Gaffney, a spokesperson for the drone video site AirVuz, says, "very few places and events are not drone-able."

Flying Colors: Once you needed to spend thousands of dollars to earn a full-fledged pilot's license before flying a drone for commercial work. Part 107 is the FAA's compromise--a remote-pilot certificate, which requires only a simple written test and is designed for those who want to fly small drones.

No-Fly Zones: The FAA has strict rules on where drones cannot fly: within a five-mile radius of airports--unless the airport is notified; stadiums an hour before, during, and an hour after major events; and certain dense urban areas. The FAA has an app to help you spot such no-fly zones. Above all, use common sense. "Not everyone is keen on having drones on their property," says Jörg Lamprecht, co-founder and CEO of airspace security firm Dedrone.

Sign Up: Consumers and business have to register drones if they weigh over .55 pounds or 250 grams. If you're making money from your unmanned aerial vehicle, it must be registered with the FAA and assigned an N-number, says RTI Group's Jeremy Reynolds. Luckily, that costs just $5.

Keep It in View: A drone must stay in its pilot's line of sight, unless you have a Part 107 waiver. Sending a drone a mile or so away could be a problem if someone sees it, jots down its ID number, and reports it.

Stay Low: Flying above 400 feet is, for the most part, an FAA no-no. What's up there: police helicopters, emergency responders, and commercial airplanes--nothing you'd want to bother.