For pilots, they’re a convenient way to accrue flight time—for beachgoers, they’re a nuisance. But whatever you think of the banner-towing airplanes carrying fluttering advertisements over U.S. oceans, they’ve got competition.
Miami-based aerial advertising company Sustainable Skylines recently announced it has obtained FAA permission to launch a commercial banner-towing operation. But rather than airplanes, remotely piloted drones will tow the banners.
The approval, an exemption to section 44807 of the FAA’s Part 107 small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) rule, is the first for a drone banner-towing service in the U.S. Typically, the exemption is reserved for drones that exceed the rule’s 55-pound takeoff weight limit or seek operational waivers not permitted under Part 107.
Combined with a banner towing authorization currently under review, the FAA greenlight will allow Sustainable Skylines drones to begin towing full-size banner ads over Miami Beach as soon as October or November.
“Banner advertising is another exciting example of the new opportunities that commercial drones bring to our economy, while enhancing the safety of the National Airspace System,” said Lisa Ellman, chair of the UAS practice at global law firm Hogan Lovells, which facilitated Sustainable Skylines’ FAA approval.
According to the company, drones have the potential to be a more sustainable, safe, and scalable alternative to banner-towing airplanes. However, if drone-based aerial advertising can charge less than traditional services, it could eat into a popular and easy source of flight hours (and extra income) for pilots.
Jacob Stonecipher, founder and CEO of Sustainable Skylines, told MarketingBrew the company will charge similar prices to those of traditional banner-tow operations and sell advertising time in two-hour blocks.
“This is a significant milestone for Sustainable Skylines and the broader drone industry,” Stonecipher said in a press release. “Our team has worked tirelessly toward this regulatory approval…We’re excited to work with our partners to safely launch and integrate banner advertising by drone into the local airspace and community.”
What It Could Mean
Sustainable Skylines—by its very name—bills its service as a sustainable option for advertisers. It uses hybrid-electric drones made by partner Velary that require just 3 gallons of unleaded auto fuel for a four-hour flight. Compare that to the average piston single used for towing, which may burn up to 30 gallons of 100LL on the same trip. This, the company claims, could reduce the banner towing industry’s carbon footprint by 90 percent and help it reach international aviation emissions goals.
The firm also claims to offer a safer alternative to airplane advertising, which experts say is no more inherently dangerous than other kinds of crewed flight. However, Sustainable Skylines would help eliminate the rare cases—around 10 per year in the U.S.—where towplanes had accidents.
Perhaps the most enticing prospect for advertisers, though, is the scale they could achieve with drones. Since they have vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities, UAS eliminate the need for nearby airports and runways to support operations. That simplifies the logistics of banner towing and opens a wider range of locations in which to advertise.
Sustainable Skylines also offers a campaign analytics platform to augment its banner-towing drones. It can use third-party cell phone datasets to measure the size of the crowd in view of the banner, giving advertisers an estimate of how many people saw it. The company emphasized the maneuverability of drones could make for more dynamic routes and eye-popping flight patterns.
However, services such as Sustainable Skylines may rub a few pilots the wrong way.
Despite the ongoing pilot shortage, banner towing has been relatively unaffected—a large pool of aviators use the one-way, passenger-free flights to accrue flight time or additional income (typically between $15 and $50 an hour). Beyond obtaining a commercial pilot certificate to fly a single-engine airplane for compensation or hire, the only challenge is learning to hook the banner during takeoff.
The cost of flying a drone, though, will likely be similar to the wages paid to pilots. Sustainable Skylines does not have a flat rate—it consults with customers to determine pricing based on their budget and campaign goals. But Stonecipher said the firm is already looking to charge about what traditional banner-towing firms do, and drone unit economics are predicted to improve.
Stonecipher insisted that banner-tow pilots will have a role to play in the firm’s operations but did not specify exactly what that might be.
“To grow [out-of-home advertising] at scale and even bring it to the programmable ad marketplace will require the unique skill sets banner towers have,” the CEO told FLYING in May. “We’re going to need that experience to reap the benefits and ensure the requisite level of safety pilots inherently have to ensure this market grows as fast as we know it can.”
According to an FAQ on the company’s website, it seeks to hire FAA Part 107 certified drone pilots with substantial flight experience. They will be provided with full training and certification for banner towing and fleet operation. Perhaps this is where the aforementioned experience will come in.
The fear among pilots may be that drone banner towing becomes a competitive industry—or they’ll step in to serve as drone pilots instead. Sustainable Skylines is not the only company eyeing it. Another firm, Pixis Drones, advertises using drone light shows and has put on displays for Candy Crush, the launch of Paris Hilton’s 11:11 Media, and even the NBA draft.
However, it’s also very possible that aerial drone advertising remains niche, with only a handful of companies competing. Or it could become a premium service, one that’s more expensive than traditional banner towing but offers greater benefits to advertisers. Stonecipher said Sustainable Skylines hopes to one day deploy predictive analytics for dynamic pricing. That would allow it to charge more on the busiest summer days when more eyeballs are on the skies.
The company in May received a $1 million raise in a pre-seed funding round that included Jeffrey Zajkowski, former head of Equity Capital Markets at J.P. Morgan; Drew Katz, CEO of Interstate Outdoor Advertising; Paul Mulé, senior vice president of finance and head of corporate development at Arcadia Power; and other angel investors and industry executives.
Now, it hopes to secure the next round of funding to scale nationwide, targeting markets such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas, as well as additional coastal cities. Eventually, the goal is to expand globally.