The indoor drone company has taken off during the pandemic, now zooming through city buildings
John Bach and Zach Dulla fly high.
Their drone company, Indoor Drone Tours, has shot real estate promotional videos in luxury skyscrapers and commercial spaces across the city.
But their aerial devices also buzzed inches away from Chicago Bulls dancers, known as the Luvabulls, and alongside team mascot Benny the Bull, diving at the United Center. A video they shot of the clubhouse and locker rooms at Wisconsin’s famed Whistling Straits golf course during the Ryder Cup last year has gone viral.
The Chicago Fire football team is also a customer.
Two years ago, as the pandemic began to grip the country, their business took off offering “contactless drone tours” to vendors who didn’t want people in their homes.
It was initially a side project for a marketing company. Dulla and Bach started after quitting their sales job at the age of 23, but soon became a separate business and their primary focus.
Bach and Dulla, now 28 and friends from when they filmed high school sports as part of Barrington High School’s video production club, have found their niche in ‘first person view’ drones .
Pilots of the tiny devices wear helmets — they look like oversized goggles — with screens that broadcast a live camera feed from the drone, essentially giving the pilot a view of the cockpit.
More importantly, the technology allows a pilot to stay in one place while piloting the drone through a maze of rooms or tight spaces, eliminating the need for a direct line of sight.
The resulting video footage transports viewers as if they were on Superman’s shoulders.
Their first breakup came when an Oak Park real estate agent called and said, “I have to sell five houses for sellers who won’t let me in, or a photographer,” recalls Dulla, CEO of Indoor Drone Towers.
“We would put the drone inside the front door and the family inside would hide out of sight in the basement or bathroom for a few minutes to stay out of the video as we hovered over home,” he said.
The video would be edited and posted to an online house listing.
Their business grew and evolved. The company, which has no physical office space, employs eight people full-time, including a new hire in Denver to help expand outside of the Midwest.
While no one is asking for contactless drone tours anymore, real estate is still their main focus.
Their clients are now 70% commercial real estate, 20% shops and hotels and 10% residential real estate.
Other drone companies exist in Chicago, but none seem to offer the same focus on first-person-view drones.
“I think that’s going to change very soon, but right now we’re going through our own territory,” Dulla said.
One of their first gigs in the commercial market was with Matt Pistoria, director of R2 Companies and founder of Madison Rose.
Pistoria needed footage of Germania Place, a historic Near North Side building he was trying to rent.
“Their video is the reason we rented it. Someone overseas, in Italy, came across some footage he had shot of our ballroom, and we signed a deal that ended up bringing the Immersive Van Gogh Experience to Chicago,” said said Pistoria.
The company also photographed the former main post office which has been rehabilitated and converted into offices. More recently, they produced videos for hotels in Dallas and San Diego.
The National Association of Realtors found in a 2021 Sales Trends Report that 45% of agents said the inclusion of virtual tours in listings was significantly higher since the pandemic began. And members place drones among the top emerging technologies that would be useful in selling property.
Rob Pontarelli, senior vice president of marketing for Magellan Development Group, one of the city’s largest builders with projects that include Lakeshore East and the St. Regis Tower, said drone footage for big announcements value are something buyers expect.
“I would do it for every million dollars and more. I think it’s worth it,” said Pontarelli, who has used Indoor Drone Tours to promote Magellan projects.
“The drone footage we have will fly around the neighborhood and show the building from the outside and then enter the main entrance. It really gives you a better sense of the space than 3D tours,” he said.
The sizzle value offered by first-person view drones was a natural fit for the Bulls, said team video production manager Chris Ramirez.
“The Bulls have never really had experience with FPV, so that skill set is something we wanted to bring to our content,” said Ramirez, who weaves together content that appears on the United Center Jumbotron and on Bulls social media.
“I’ve never heard of a company in Chicago doing something similar,” he said. “A drone flew through a basketball hoop inches from our dancers, and we only repeated it three or four times,” he said.