Building a New Elevation of Drone Biz in the Mountains, Part 1

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Building a New Elevation of Drone Biz in the Mountains, Part 1
Drone entrepreneur Jordan Nelson captures aerial video for demolition clients for projects like the Georgia Dome implosion. Courtesy of

The following feature is Part 1 in a two-part series telling the unique story of Jordan Nelson – a Millennial-aged entrepreneur whose success story is rooted in the Blue Ridge Mountains region. A version of this article first appeared in High Country Magazine.

Most residents of the western North Carolina mountains know Jordan Nelson.

They may not realize they know him – “Oh, yeah. He’s that
drone guy.”

The guy with the compelling aerial flooding videos on
Facebook? That’s Jordan.

The breathtaking mountain vista videos on Instagram? That’s

Since 2014, Jordan has helmed Nelson Aerial Productions (
and to date his amazing drone videos have been viewed almost 10 million times
and he boasts more than 36,000 Instagram followers. As of this press date,
Jordan is two clients away from hitting the 200 mark.

“It was all organic,” Jordan said. “I only started by posting a
few videos on Facebook and Instagram. The business all grew by word of mouth.”

Using unmanned vehicles – usually multi-rotor copter drones –
mounted with the latest in video and photo technology, Jordan shoots footage
for a variety of clients from construction companies to Realtors.

What started as a local business has expanded nationwide. One week
may see Jordan on the coast filming aftermath damage from hurricanes for safety
officials while the next may see him in Florida piloting his drone in
Jacksonville, Fla on a tunnel inspection gig.

In total, Nelson Aerial Productions have launched almost 2,800
flights. Oh yeah, and Jordan also used his drone in a marriage proposal – we’ll
get to that.

But had you asked Jordan Nelson in 2013 if he’d be the biggest
name in the Appalachian regional drone game, he would have replied: “What’s a

Jordan grew up in Hudson, N.C.  – population, 3,776
– and attended the same high school as MLB wunderkind pitcher Madison Bumbarger. Jordan later attended Guilford
College as a geography major. He played football and baseball and intended to
pursue a career in city planning or civil engineering.

In 2011, he transferred to Appalachian State University in
Boone, N.C., graduating in 2012. Three months later, he took a job three months
at the university’s building services department to pay the rent fresh out of

As with so many folks in the Boone area (also known as the
High Country), Jordan had a passion for snowboarding. By 2013, he already had a
keen interest in photography but described himself mostly as an amateur iPhone

As with most successful businesses, he got his start by asking,
“I wonder how?”

In Jordan’s case: “I wonder how I can get capture better
snowboarding video?”

In the winter sports world, the GoPro is the Mercedes of
videography equipment – from high-resolution cameras to study camera mounts for
helmets and snowboards. A quick “GoPro” YouTube search opened Jordan’s eyes to
a whole new world of videography – a view from above.

“One of the top searches turned out to be from some company
called DJI,” he said.

In 2013, videographers had started to see the marriage of
drone tech and GoPro mounts as the Reese’s candy-bar combo of amazing footage.

“I thought,” ‘that’s a really cool perspective to capture my
snowboarding,” he said.

At the age of 24, Jordan bought a DJI Phantom 1 and attached
a GoPro camera without a gimbal (that keeps the camera/footage stable with the
ability to pan up and down). Since he could only point the aerial camera in one
direction, he never got around to using capturing snowboard footage.

And that fateful decision turned out to be a watershed
moment that would define Jordan Nelson’s career – a literal watershed, in fact.

On a torrential day in 2013, Jordan decided to use his
new-found gadget to capture video in the wake of heavy flooding on the nearby
Watauga River.

He posted footage to his Facebook profile with the term
“viral” never crossing his mind. Within hours the videos went there – garnering
thousands of views.

“After the flooding video – seeing how many people saw it
and shared it and commented on it – the lightbulb went off for [future
clients], Jordan said.

“That’s when I started to get calls.”

Six years ago, the commercial drone industry had been around
a handful of years. However, most folks viewed the word as a negative –
conjuring mental images of unmanned military vehicles bombing civilians. The
commercial industry mostly used rotor vehicles (think four rotor copters)
rather than the small fixed-wing planes used in warfare.

However, as time passed, people began to see that drone
technology had a non-lethal, economic future. As drones became more
commonplace, Jordan saw opportunity as clients began to find him.

“It got to the point that I had clients request stuff in the
middle of the week,” he said. “It was becoming more frequent. I needed to use
vacation days to do the work.”

Even as Jordan continued his work at Appalachian State, his
business began to grow organically. Finally, the potential income of a
full-fledged business outpaced his full-time salary and he launched Nelson
Aerial Productions.

“I enjoyed the freedom of being able to go places and do
different things instead of the same thing every day,” Jordan said. “I was not
yet making the same as at ASU, but I knew if I did it full time, I could
surpass my salary.”

“I decided to go out on a limb and pursue it.”

Many of his first clients hailed from the world of real
estate. With such a gorgeous backdrop of mountain scenery surrounding homes for
sale, Realtors could not resist the chance to wow clients with an aerial
perspective of their dream home.

A colossal tipping point flew into Jordan’s vision when
demolition firm D.H. Griffin Company hired Nelson Aerial to film the historic
implosion of the Winkler Hall dormitory at Appalachian State in 2014.

Built in 1974, the aging 11-story building succumbed to
carefully placed charges and toppled slowly while a crowd gathered. Jordan
captured it all, adding to his already growing reputation as “That Drone Guy.”

Since that implosive day, Jordan’s client base has gone
national. Clients include Vintage & Specialty Wood, Lees-McRae College, Allen
Yates Realty, UNC-Chapel Hill and Sotheby’s International Realty. National
media outlets have also worked with Jordan to feature headline-grabbing

“Jordan does just amazing work. I think he brings a rare
blend of being a great pilot and also a great editor and storyteller with his
work,” WCNC Charlotte Chief Meteorologist Brad Panovich said.  “I work with a lot of great photographers and
even some amateur drone pilots and we all agree Jordan does some of the best
work we have seen.”

Flying into the world of drones changed the course of
Nelson’s professional path, but it’s also affected his personal life.

While on a hike with his girlfriend at McRae Peak on
Grandfather Mountain in 2016, Jordan stopped at the summit and unloaded his
drone a move that didn’t surprise Meghan Frye.

What happened next did.

As the drone circled the couple on autopilot, Jordan bent to
one knee in front of Meghan and proposed.

“I decided to propose on top of McRae Peak because that is
actually where we went on our first date nearly three years to the day.  I always took my drone with me so I knew she
wouldn’t think anything of it.”

The video immediately garnered the attention of Good Morning
America and the Today Show. Oh, and Meghan said “yes.”

They were married a year later.

“I had footage go viral before but not on a personal level
like this.  About a year later, Google
actually used some of the footage for one of their national ad campaigns.”

Looking back, Jordan realizes some measure of his success –
his talent notwithstanding – was being in the right space at the right time.

think in every industry there’s always an opportunity for someone new to take
the industry by storm,” said. “I think the amount of work, the commitment and
the quality have to be much greater than when I started in 2013 just for the
fact that the industry is so established now.”

fact that the quality of drones has increased significantly, and the price has
decreased also makes it harder.  Almost everyone can afford a decent drone,
so it means the competition is much fiercer which makes a quick and easy
success story even harder.”

Jordan’s Advice for Commercial Drone Enthusiasts

advice for those getting started is to do things legally.  Have fun flying
and learning but before you do any sort of work for anyone (even free work can
be for the betterment of a business meaning it was still a commercial drone
flight).  Having the proper credentials will go a long way in the success
of your business and unfortunately in the drone industry far too many people
don’t do that.  Drones can certainly be dangerous if operated by careless
people who don’t want to do things legally.  Those people not only
jeopardize themselves and others around them but also the industry as a whole.
 I don’t want to see someone careless ruin the industry and the progress
it has made over the last 2-3 years.”

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