Camera flies in its own helicopter Remote controlled: Two men use a remote-controlled helicopter to photograph difficult scenes for Columbia Aerial Photography.

March 03, 1996|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A story in the March 3 Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly named the founders of Columbia Aerial Photography. The company was co-founded by Patrick R. Carletto and LaVega "Bic" Green. Mr. Carletto since has left the company and has founded Carletto Aerial Photography in Ellicott City.

A picture is worth a thousand words -- and up to $100 to LaVega "Bic" Green, owner of Columbia Aerial Photography, who plies the skies with a miniature, camera-equipped, remote-controlled helicopter that he built from a kit.

His aerial photograph of snow-covered Columbia Town Center, taken during the January blizzard when larger aircraft were grounded, proves that bigger isn't necessarily better, he says.


"We dared the tundra," says Mr. Green, a model aircraft buff and test pilot instructor at AAI Corp., a Cockeysville defense contractor that builds unmanned aircraft.

Called MOPP -- for Miniature Observation Photo-documentation Platform -- Mr. Green's flying camera is 5 feet wide and weighs 17 pounds. It is a distant civilian cousin of unmanned military craft that Mr. Green has been flying since 1980 for defense contractors such as AAI, which builds the Pioneer drones that were used for surveillance in Operation Desert Storm.

It's no surprise that Mr. Green, a member of the Howard County Radio Control Club since 1992, would latch onto the commercial potential of a device such as MOPP, which he built from a kit he bought at a hobby shop.

A former Air Force pilot, Mr. Green has been interested in flying since he was 12 years old and spent his weekly allowance on model airplanes.

In 1980, after 10 years in the military, he began piloting unmanned aerial vehicles, called UAV's or drones, at R. S. Systems, a defense contractor in Beltsville. Five years later, he started working for AAI as a test pilot for Pioneer drones.

His job, he says, is "almost an extension" of his model-airplane hobby.

"There are model planes that cost $100; I fly $4 million drones for a living," he says.

He built the MOPP in 1994. The basic kit can cost from $1,000 to $1,500, he says. With cameras and other equipment, the device has cost him between $5,000 and $6,000, he estimates.

The methyl alcohol-powered drone forms the commercial photography business begun in August 1994 by Mr. Green and his friend and partner, Gary Dennis.

Mr. Dennis, a 35-year-old Baltimore resident, is chief project engineer for Pioneer drones at AAI.

With Mr. Dennis as the cameraman and Mr. Green flying the aircraft, the two take aerial photos they say would be more expensive if taken in a full-size, manned aircraft.

The cost of aerial photography from a regular, manned helicopter can be $200 an hour, Mr. Green says. By contrast, he charges from $50 to $100 for pictures taken from his remote-controlled miniature chopper.

A basic 8-by-10-inch photo costs $50; other options include a 20-by-30-inch photo and digitized pictures from which Mr. Green can erase unwanted details.

In addition, he says, "I can fly in places that the big ones can't. I take up exactly the same camera and I can do it better, cheaper."


Potentially, he says, remote photographic equipment "can

keep people out of harm's way by going into areas where there is suspected radioactivity or places that may be chemically dangerous. It is not weather- or situation-constrained."

The day after the January blizzard, for example, Mr. Green and a neighbor, Murray Schrotenboer, packed the miniature helicopter, control box, a portable television and starter batteries for the MOPP into a four-wheel-drive Subaru and took off toward Little Patuxent Parkway.

After arriving at the "launch" area in front of the Rouse Co. building in Columbia's Town Center, Mr. Green and his neighbor set MOPP out in the cold for a few minutes.

"The chopper needs to get acclimated to the cold," says Mr. Green.

"You get clear pictures when there is no condensation on the lens."

While Mr. Green stood outside flying the small helicopter by remote control, Mr. Schrotenboer stayed in the car, watching a TV screen that projected a video of MOPP's travels.

need the other person to guide me," Mr. Green says. "I'm operating five or six things at one time. With the help of a computer radio, he is telling me to move a little higher, or if I am in tight corners."

Thirty photos and 25 minutes later, with some fuel in the tank to spare, Mr. Green brought the MOPP -- ice-free and in top-notch condition -- back down, despite 35 mph wind gusts and freezing temperatures.

Mr. Green hopes that the 30 pictures he took documenting the blizzard will educate prospective clients about MOPP's abilities. Photos have included aerial shots of private estates, commercial properties and renovations of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

Mr. Green considers his commercial photography business a fallback.

"With the defense industry, there are no jobs that are guaranteed," he says.

"I'm doing work that I think is on the cutting edge of new


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