The Drone Life: Learning to Fly with Drone Pilot Sean McVeigh

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

Have you ever noticed how the most successful people in the production world are always booked out? That’s not just being lucky although luck helps sometimes, right? It's hard work, practice, and a professional attitude that keeps people busy. 

Drone Pilot Sean McVeigh of Sean McVeigh Media is a busy guy, which is why I was grateful when he agreed to sit down with me because it was already at the tail end of a very long day. However, the good guys and gals in this business do that kind of stuff.

Let’s check out what Sean had to say in this ProductionHUB exclusive, where he discusses his background, the drone business, licensing and more. 

PH: Tell us a little bit about your production background. How long  have you been in the biz and what kind of gear do you have? What kinds of drones and types of projects?

Sean McVeigh: I started out working in television in the Providence and Boston markets, and then I worked as a producer and editor at NBC in Washington, D.C. for “The George Michael Sports Machine”.  After a few years there, I relocated back to New England, working for a few companies within their marketing departments as a manager and director, producing videos.

One of the marketing departments I worked with was for an international travel and tourism company. There I got a lot of experience creating promotional videos for various travel destinations. While I was there, in 2012, I decided to take the full plunge and start my own company, Sean McVeigh Media. We’ve continued to grow and produce video content for all different types of industries. 

I believe it’s crucial to have the right equipment to capture the best possible content. Currently we use all Sony cameras for our productions; typically we’re using the Sony FX6 or the Sony A7SIII.  For our aerial projects, we use the Inspire 2, Mavic Pro 2, Phantom Pro 4, and the new DJI FVP drone.

PH: What prompted you to get into the drone part of the business?

Sean McVeigh: Honestly, it’s really just evolved from my personal interest in flying and the potential drones have to produce great photos and videos. I had the first version of the Phantom with a GoPro attached. I used it a few times, but it was never easy to see what you are capturing. A couple of years later, a friend reached out to me and said “You should really check out the new Inspire 1.”  Once I saw the big upgrade in technology, I knew this drone would be a game changer for the industry. I partnered with a few of my contacts in the cruise industry to start using drones to feature their cruise ships traveling some of their more scenic routes, and docked in some of their feature destinations.

The shots can be beautiful, but flying drones from moving boats can be pretty challenging. We’ve had a lot of interesting situations thrown at us, but we’ve learned a lot as we’ve gone along. You have to prepare for almost anything, and expect the unexpected, especially when you’re flying in a new location. 

PH: Was it hard to get your drone license? How long did that take?

Sean McVeigh: Obtaining your drone license isn’t meant to be easy – there is a lot you need to know before you fly a machine that can go a few hundred feet in the air, and disappear from sight if you’re not careful. But, it’s not an impossible task. You need to do the homework, study aviation maps, weather terminology, and learn the FAA regulations.  If you do those things, you should do fine. There are a few online courses that can help, and there are a few practice tests available as well.

PH: Are there any new drone rules or regulation updates? Does that happen often?

Sean McVeigh: The industry is constantly changing. For instance, in March they lifted the requirement that the exam be taken at an airport. Now you can take the Part 107 test online.

The technology is always changing, and regulations are struggling to keep up at times. For instance, coming soon, the FAA is going to require “Remote ID.” This means that drones will have to broadcast their ID, location, altitude, velocity, and the location of their ground control station. This requirement is an attempt to help deter drone operators who perform illegal and dangerous stunts, like trying to fly too close to airplanes. 

Every two years you have to retake the exam to maintain your license, and new rules and regulations are always an important part of the exam.

PH: How do you explain the drone process to a new client?

Sean McVeigh: Flying a drone for a client is not always as easy as powering up, and taking off. Depending on where and when we are flying, it can be a two-step process. We have to file with the FAA in certain areas that are within a certain range of airports. Then, because the drone manufacturers have their own safety measures, we also have to file paperwork with the drone company, DJI, to unlock the drone as well. So, if a client wants us to fly in heavily trafficked areas like (BOS) Boston Logan airport, it can be a real challenge. 

PH: Do people ask you to do dangerous or illegal stuff?

Sean McVeigh: No, I can’t say we come across any of that.  Most of our clients want us to do things the right way, safely and legally. They appreciate the fact that we know the FAA rules and regulations very well.

PH: What would you consider your "best" success story and your worst "fail" story?

Sean McVeigh: We have been very fortunate to work on some really cool projects.  We worked with Mumford and Sons on a music video being shot for Apple and iTunes.  We have worked on cruise ships across North America capturing some really cool landscapes and locations. We captured drone footage for a Jaguar car advertisement, we’ve followed yachts off the Florida coast; some really fun stuff.

We had one mishap that really illustrates how important it is to be on your game at all times when operating a drone. We were shooting a commercial in New England, and it was the end of a long day. The sun was setting over the water, and there was a beautiful shot to be had with some trees in the foreground. We had already gotten all of the footage we needed, so this was really a “bonus” shot – the last shot of the day. Unfortunately, as the sun was setting the visibility was changing with it, and we missed seeing a tree branch in our flight path. We had already flown by that tree 3 or 4 times that afternoon, but as the lighting changed, the branch seemed to fade. We just didn’t see it … and flew our drone right into the tree. No one was in the flight path, so no one got hurt, but the drone was a mangled mess. Just a reminder that, no matter how many times you’ve flown your drone, or flown it in a given area, don’t let your guard down. 

PH: Do you want to move up to a bigger, more filmic drone?

Sean McVeigh: I am pretty happy with the niche I am in right now. I have a lot of control over the projects I work on, and it allows me to be pretty creative. Flying the bigger drones requires that much more practice and technical skill, and often those drones are part of larger teams of drones designed to get cinematic footage from lots of angles. I really admire what those folks can do.

PH: What would you tell anyone breaking into the drone business?

Sean McVeigh: The drone industry remains new and exciting, and it’s always changing and will continue to grow as we find more and more applications for this type of technology.  To be successful doing what we do, you have to really invest in understanding the technical components of drone flight, as well as really paying attention to the rules and regulations. Customers really appreciate drone operators who put safety first.

That, and build a network that you can utilize to share information and experiences. Try to find projects that you and a member of your network can work on together. A successful project like that will lead to more and more successful projects.

Thanks Sean.

This is an exciting time to be working with drones at almost every level. Sean is spot on when he says you have to understand the technical components of drone flight and operate in a safe manner by paying attention to the rules.  

Sean McVeigh Media Demo Reel | Rhode Island Video & Drone Company from Sean McVeigh on Vimeo.

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About the Author

Mark Foley
Mark Foley
Mark J. Foley, MBA BA is an award-winning producer and director and the Technology Editor for ProductionHUB.com. He is on a mission to provide the best in new equipment reviews, along with exclusive analysis and interviews with the best, the brightest and most creative minds in the entertainment and production business. Have a suggestion for a review? Email Mark at mfoley@productionhub.com.

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