Most high-flying business

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Before he got into drones, Richard MacDonald had been running a successful aerial photography business for nearly 15 years.

To get that shot from the sky, you'd have to hire a helicopter, camera system and operator — let's just say it was involved and costly. "Really anything that was shot in Richmond, aerialwise," he says, "started at around $12,000."

His first drone six years ago set him back $17,000. It was an eight-blade beast that could hold a reflex camera, he says, cobbled together and part of a system using tripods, antennas and wires.

Then, the DJI brand came along. Drones landed under Christmas trees. "That's when the drone industry exploded," says MacDonald, whose New Media Systems is one of the oldest aerial photography businesses in the area.

Today a starter professional drone can go for $1,500 to $2,000.

MacDonald watched while the market shook out too, with entry-level operators undercutting seasoned photography vets on price. "For a while, the drone became a race to the bottom," he says, comparing it to the advent of digital photography and the resulting flood of wedding photographers.

Things have leveled out a bit now, and MacDonald's business serves the construction industry, commercial and home real estate markets — for market research, advertising and construction progress shoots —- and artistic projects that can roll in from the Virginia Film Office, such as AMC's "Turn."

But don't expect to turn that drone you got for Christmas into a full-time gig. There are a lot of things to consider, MacDonald says.

Do you have an established client base? Can your market support it? Do you know the rules?

The less-glamorous side of the drone business, at the least, requires a license. That comes after a 70-question Federal Aviation Administration test. Because MacDonald is a pilot, he already had that under his belt. But should you embark on ground school, you'll be studying airspace, aerial traffic patterns and weather-map reading.

Glitzy stuff, indeed. And let's not forget the artistic side. There's a difference between taking a photo with professional equipment and being a professional who understands how to use that equipment to capture a compelling, jaw-dropping shot.

Maybe it's best to not kill the fun, keep your eyes toward the sky and forget about your wallet. Richmond looks stunning from above.

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