July 28, 2015 by
Photography by Scott Neal

This article published in B2B Summer 2015.

It’s not every roofing repair estimate that draws a crowd of gawkers. But when Luke Hansen of White Castle Roofing gets on site and starts flying his drone, people often stop and watch the show.

“Everyone gets super excited,” says Hansen, also the company’s marketing director. “Neighbors come out—kids. It’s really cool.”

Fun though it might be, Hansen is all business when operating the drone. He started using it in January 2014, primarily for two purposes: to investigate the condition of roofs, and to market and advertise his company by capturing video of his crews at work and their finished projects.

Getting started was easy, and relatively affordable. Hansen bought the unmanned aircraft—a DJI Phantom 2—on Amazon for about $1,500. It features four propellers, enough battery for a 25-minute flight, and a remote control with 7-inch screen to show what video is being captured. Hansen’s Phantom 2 is equipped with a GoPro camera that records HD video and saves it to an SD card.

Hansen estimates the drone’s flight range to be about a mile. He says FAA rules limit flight to no more than 700 feet, though he’s seen YouTube footage of his model going higher than 2,000 feet. Hansen says he typically keeps his drone no more than 100 feet from his position.

Training was a breeze. He only had a small crash or two when he first tested it in a field. “It’s really, really easy to operate,” Hansen says. “Really easy to fly.”

That’s good considering the hard-to-reach places White Castle often encounters. “There are a lot of places, especially in roofing, that are just hard to get to,” Hansen says. “Things that would be time-consuming or dangerous to climb.”

Like the 50-foot-tall church steeple in Raymond, Neb., that Hansen inspected for hail damage using the drone. Estimators otherwise would have used a massive ladder or perhaps a crane. Hansen also used the drone to inspect the damaged roof of an 11-building Lincoln apartment complex with hundreds of units. Typically, that would have taken six hours. Hansen did it in 10 minutes and only hours later he shared the video with the complex manager.

If there is a drawback to using the drone, it’s uncertainty regarding FAA regulations on the use of unmanned aircraft. “There are all sorts of legal things going on right now, so it’s in a bit of limbo,” says Hansen, who gets homeowners’ consent before flying his drone over their property. He stays current with FAA regulatory news and has consulted with Director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Drone Journalism Lab Matt Waite.

White Castle numbers about 100 employees during its peak season, including Luke’s brothers, Jake and Dane. The 30-year-old company frequently embraces technology. For some time it has measured roofs via a service that plugs aerial photographs into mapping software. “We measure every roof on a computer,” Hansen adds.

And this year White Castle began selling Company Cam, an app it developed with Lincoln software developer Agilix. The app compresses job site pictures and uploads them to a private, secure cloud site. The images are time-stamped and tied to their real-world address via GPS. Photos can be drawn on, annotated, and shared live from the field in the office.

“The whole point of tech is to make things easier,” Hansen says. “Sometimes you start using a new technology and it only makes things more complicated. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

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