As a pilot of drone-operated cameras, A-Cam Aerials co-founder Sugahara captures footage of moving cars and other scenery for major TV commercials. At the same time, the Portland, Oregon, resident realizes that not everybody enjoys the buzzing aircraft. Annoyed neighbors have shot at drones—and their operators.
So, Sugahara, who is also a lawyer, has worked to modernize laws that regulate the burgeoning industry. An early success came in 2017, when Oregon lawmakers cracked down on drones carrying weapons. He recently helped persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to require that drones be equipped with digital ID tags. Tens of thousands of drone operators pushed back, citing privacy concerns, but starting this fall all American-made drones will incorporate the ID technology, for which Sugahara holds a patent.
In other efforts, he pushes to give drone owners more freedom. A proposal to relax the federal rule that users be able to see their drones at all times could open up new uses for the aircraft, such as inspecting power lines, scouting for forest fires, and seeking lost hikers. “Drones offer tremendous economic benefits,” says Sugahara, who founded Drone Service Providers Alliance, a trade group, in 2020.
Sugahara fell into the role of drone evangelist almost by accident. As executive director of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, he began using drones in 2013 to video cyclists. “It was a great way to show off the sport,” he says. Captivated by the potential of shooting action from above, the Connecticut native—a sociology major who earned his law degree at the University of Oregon—went “full-time drone,” he says. His clients include BMW, Adidas, and Under Armour. “When you have Kenji on your team, you know you have the best of everything,” says Rachel Bradford, who produces TV ads with him. “He knows how to make things safe and legal.”