COLLINSVILLE — Ian Maue chases racing cars.
The 20-year-old from Collinsville started his business, Metro East Drone Aerials, after his first semester in college. He pays for the school by booby trapping wagons with his toy planes, producing video clips that give the big picture of the high-octane sport.
“It’s a new vision that hasn’t been around in the race,” says Maue. “It’s just something people can’t wait to see.”
The drone service industry has taken off since the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2016 rule opened the skies to entrepreneurs and quadcopter enthusiasts. Compact flyers have become easier to customize and control. Cameras are sharper. Battery life is longer. And experienced operators, like Maue, show the range of industries they can serve. According to Grand View Research, the global commercial drone market is expected to surpass $500 billion in revenue by 2028, up from less than $21 billion last year.
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Maue was in middle school when an uncle gave her her first toy drone. When he was 17 – aided by a YouTube tutorial, a 3D printer and the pocket money of a part-time job – Maue spent two months building one from scratch.
For an incredible 10 seconds he hovered obediently. Then her baby crashed.
“Then I started getting serious about it,” Maue says. He experimented with different configurations of engines, propellers and camera systems and obtained his FAA license.
Through a friend, he learned of the expansion of drones into motor racing – where they could capture drifts, near misses and holding shots from multiple vantage points. The professional racing circuit added drones to its television coverage in 2016 and ramped up its use three years later.
Maue decided to start small.
In January 2021, he approached Tammy Gundaker, owner of Tri-City Speedway near Granite City with her husband. During the off-season, the Gundakers organize go-kart races in a stable on Lake Saint-Louis.
“He came in, introduced himself and said, ‘I’m new to this. I try to get my feet wet,” Gundaker recalled.
Those early go-kart shots were a bit crude: the barn roof limited the drone’s elevation, and Maue was using an analog signal, prone to interference. But the effort showed him the possibilities.
“It was a learning experience,” says Maue. “It made me a better driver.”
He built his fleet of drones to 17, selecting all the components. Most drones have 5 inch frames and weigh less than a pound and a half. Its fastest can exceed 130 mph.
“If you program it yourself, you can make it do whatever you want,” he said. “If something breaks, you know how to fix it.”
Professional drone operators, like Maue, often prefer first-person view drones, which require more finesse to fly than recreational drones. The goggles allow him to see what the drone sees, but they also allow near-blind take-off and landing.
A full day of work
In the spring of last year Maue was ready to try his hand at super late model racing on the ³⁄8 mile track in Tri-City. The Gundakers hired him to produce videos that they could post on their social media. Fans were blown away – and drivers too.
Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Illinois, grew up on a dirt road and has been touring professionally since 2018. He had never seen anything like the drone footage Maue sent him last summer during from one of his races in Tri-City.
The drone tracks cars as they weave around corners and pinch boards. Their aluminum frames shake. The dirt swells.
“I thought, man, this is badass,” Pierce says. “It’s a sight you can only see in a video game or something.”
The whole thing only lasts a few minutes: the batteries discharge quickly. But Maue keeps a queue ready, dispatching a new drone as soon as one runs out.
On race nights, Maue arrives at the track two to three hours early. He stakes out a place where the stands will not interfere with the signal, chats with the pilots, performs a few test flights. When he works for a streaming service, he routes a maze of adapters through a credit card-sized computer.
“It gets technical pretty quick,” says Maue.
All the preparation is worth it, says Michael Rigsby, Vice President of FloSports. The Austin, Texas-based streaming service began regularly hiring drone operators to cover motorsports three years ago.
“He really gets one of the most positive reactions from subscribers of anything we do,” he says. “You really feel what the pilots feel.”
Eight hours of work yields about 30 minutes of Maue footage. At first he charged $250 a day. Now he wins double. It is one of the few independent operators in the United States to enter this niche, he says. That took him to 20 tracks in more than half a dozen states.
Pilots use the footage to review what went right and what went wrong during a competition. Drones have also opened up a new source of income for them. Sponsors have traditionally been limited to the bonnet or doors, but with the agility of the drone, every corner of the car is visible to fans.
Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, the son of Tri-City owners, has raced professionally on the national circuit since 2016. After hiring Maue, he earned three sponsors, sporting the top of his firecracker orange roof.
Over the past decade, drones have become a common tool in real estate, construction, mining, agriculture, and law enforcement. Today, they’re used for everything from delivering pizza to cleaning windows to monitoring endangered animal populations.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for people looking to work with drones,” says Michael Robbins of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a Washington-based trade organization. “As technology evolves, it fuels the imagination of entrepreneurs.”
Xeo Air’s drones assess critical infrastructure and the consequences of disasters. But CEO Bronwyn Morgan said the real purpose of St. Louis-based Xeo is to analyze data that could not be collected any other way. The 3-year-old company recently won a $25,000 American Express grant to purchase equipment and improve its digital platform.
Rob Haller of Southern County St. Louis founded a video production company, Haller Concepts, 40 years ago. It added drones to its fleet in 2014, providing aerial imagery to homeowners putting their homes on the market. From now on, aerial work represents a quarter of its activity. Haller used them to take inventory at construction sites, uncover irregularities on roofs and live-stream the grand opening of a Lion’s Choice.
“It’s a good market,” Haller said. “It changes all of our lives, that’s for sure.”
As for Maue, he has jobs every weekend until September. In the fall, he transferred to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to complete the final two years of his business degree. He started Metro East Drone Aerials as an academic work. But he plans to try to get into it full-time after graduation.
“It just got out of control and never really slowed down,” Maue says. “I loved every second.”