Sales are estimated to have skyrocketed 63 percent this year, but there's plenty to consider before using one.
Did you receive a drone under your Christmas tree?
If so, you’re not alone: the Consumer Electronics Association projected sales of more than 700,000 unmanned aerial vehicles in 2015.
Call them what you will – drones, UAVs, quadcopters, octocopters – these remote controlled aircraft are big business. The CEA estimated sales in the United States alone would approach $105 million this year, up a whopping 63 percent over 2014.
But as much fun as they can be to fly – drones can carry video cameras for stunning, horizon-to-horizon views – they must be operated with respect.
“You can sum it up by saying we’re worried that people may not be taking them seriously enough,” said Joshua Thomas, who coordinates DelDOT’s aeronautical planning. “People are getting them and thinking they’re just toys, not that there could be some serious safety hazards if they don’t follow the rules.”
Those rules are put forward by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a national organization promoting model aviation. The local branch is Kent County Aero Modelers. All consider UAVs to be in the same category as fixed-wing model airplanes.
“You have to be serious about them,” Thomas said. “You need to know what you’re doing before you send them up.”
Registration started Dec. 21
The federal government requires drones between one-half pound and 55 pounds to be registered with the FAA. It costs $5, although the government is waiving the fee for the first 30 days. Previous owners must complete registration by Feb. 19, while new owners, who may have received a drone for Christmas, must register before the first flight.
“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a press release announcing the registration requirements.
“Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely,” he said.
Delaware has no separate rules regarding the registration and use of drones. It endorses federal requirements.
One common rule for all model aircraft, not just drones, is that they should not be flown more than 400 feet in the air. Another, not to fly closer than five miles to an airport with a control tower or three miles to any other airport.
Delaware has 11 such airports in the state. Five, including Dover Air Force Base, are in Kent County.
The air base has a designated five-mile no-fly zone that restricts personal UAV use and provides consequences for military personnel who violate restrictions, Capt. Sarah Bergstein, chief of the 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office, said.
The base also encourages its personnel to report any drone use around and in base airspace, she said.
“Part of the Air Force and FAA’s strategy is an education campaign to get the word out to the general consumer,” Bergstein said. “Our role here at Dover AFB is to help both our internal base audience and external community audience to understand the rules and regulations for commercially owned drones.”
Safe use also is a concern with the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates several airports in Delaware and New Jersey, said Director of Airport Operations Stephen Williams.
“Given the anticipated growth in drone flying, we want to make sure that operators are knowledgeable and understand their responsibility,” Williams said.
Fun, but also practical
But having these rules and registration requirements doesn’t mean people should shy away from enjoying flying a drone.
“They’re the coolest toys you ever could want,” said Newark real estate agent Will Webber. A dyed-in-the-wool hobbyist, Webber uses drones to help sell homes – he said aerial shots are great for showing neighborhoods to prospective buyers – and to take never-seen-from-this-angle photos of points of interest throughout the state.
“Farmers can easily use this technology to survey a field, they can be used for remote surveys of dangerous areas, you can find lost kids or lost hikers,” he said. Carrying infrared or heat sensitive equipment, drones can help law enforcement see where criminals or terrorists may be hiding.
“You can find people and you can save lives,” he said.
It’s like taking part in a real-life video game, said Webber, who admits “I don’t like video games at all.”
“They can hover and they can scoot away, they make a cool noise,” Webber said. “They’re something you can control, and that’s why both little boys and men like them. You just have to experience it to know how much fun it can be.”
Types of drones
Drones come in various shapes and sizes and with differing capabilities, said Mike Baker, a professional photographer who has used them for aerial views of events including the annual Amish Country Bike Tour. Quadcopters use four propellers. Two rotate clockwise while the others rotate counterclockwise.
So-called octocopters use eight rotors, with some capable of carrying up to 15 pounds. While a basic quadcopter can be had for less than $100, professional models easily top out at $1,400 or more.
Hobbyists have their own convention, International Drone Day in March, where they can learn about the latest in technology and take part in three-dimensional obstacle courses.
Batteries, which make up about half the weight of a typical UAV, can cost about $150 each. How it’s used each time it’s flown can affect how long the battery lasts, Baker said.
The more expensive models are sturdier and come with better software, he added. Some come with GPS programming to allow the drone to fly directly to pre-programmed spots or to follow a car or bicyclist. GPS means it can automatically return to a certain spot if it loses radio contact with its controller, he said.
Don’t just open the box on Christmas Day, charge the batteries and take off, Baker said.
In addition to registration, fliers need to practice their maneuvering skills. Like video games, UAVs generally are flown with handheld controllers. Those with cameras can be linked to tablets so fliers can see what the camera sees.
“The problem is so many people will take them out and fly them until they crash,” Baker said. It’s almost a given that everybody with one will crash eventually, but practice can help prevent a costly catastrophe, he said.
“You’ll fly it into a tree or run it into a building,” he said. “A lot of that comes from reacting too quickly. I have some trees that I practice flying it around and steering it.”
Fliers also need to be aware of liability issues, Baker said, noting a recent reminder from Insurance Commissioner Karen Weldin Stewart.
Because some drones weigh as much as 55 pounds, they will cause significant damage if they fall and hit a vehicle or building. Most homeowner’s policies cover radio-controller aircraft, including UAVs, and damage to cars and other vehicles might be part of comprehensive auto policies.
Weldin Stewart also noted camera-carrying drones can violate an individual’s privacy unintentionally, raising an entirely different set of concerns. As is often the case, the real world is working to catch up with technology, she said.
“Insurers are developing policies to cover these liability exposures, so keep in touch with your insurer to make sure your use remains covered,” Weldin Stewart said.
Overall, Thomas urges drone owners to enjoy themselves, but to use common sense.
“Most of the people who operate them are doing so safely,” he said. “Generally speaking, people don’t want to be careless or reckless. But there have been some close calls, and that’s why they’re getting so much attention.”