Drones have been in the news for a variety of different reasons. Many associate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with warfare, especially in the Middle East. However, consumer drones are very different from military UAVs. The former are much smaller, and they are meant for fun, recreational use. Eventually, they may evolve into reliable delivery vehicles for mail. In five years, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN), hopes to use quadcopters to deliver packages to customers. Alibaba (NYSE: BABA) has begun privately testing delivery drones in China. However, it will take time for the technology to advance enough to increase the quadcopter’s agility and object recognition. Until then, they will likely remain toys that consumers can play with like model airplanes or remote-controlled helicopters.
Yet even though these toys are intended for simple recreational use, they have still grabbed headlines. Four private drones were spotted at the implosion site of the former Xerox (NYSE: XRX) building in Texas. In a separate incident last week, a DJI Phantom quadcopter crash-landed on the lawn of the White House. These instances did not become major news stories, but some fear that they revealed potential dangers. Law enforcement in the Dallas area stated that the drones at the implosion site could have interfered with a helicopter that might have been at the scene.
Government officials have expressed concern that despite their size, private drones can be strapped with explosives or shrapnel that can cause major damage. In fact, in a meeting between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), U.S. military, and Department of Homeland Security, it was reportedly revealed that Syrian rebels were buying consumer drones. In addition, there was a display table outside of the meeting room that showcased a DJI Phantom 2 equipped with three pounds of inert explosives. The potential of the militarization of consumer drones appears to be a real concern.
To help combat concerns of the use of private UAVs, the FAA has a set of guidelines pertaining to them. In general, consumers should only use private drones for safe, recreational use. People cannot fly them near places with manned aviation vehicles (e.g. airports), and they cannot weight more than 55 pounds. Furthermore, owners should be able to see their drones at all times during flight. Here is the FFA's official list of do's and don'ts for your convenience:
- Do fly a model aircraft/UAS at the local model aircraft club
- Do take lessons and learn to fly safely
- Do contact the airport or control tower when flying within 5 miles of the airport
- Do fly a model aircraft for personal enjoyment
- Don't fly near manned aircraft
- Don't fly beyond line of sight of the operator
- Don't fly an aircraft weighing more than 55 lbs unless it's certified by an aeromodeling community-based organization
- Don't fly contrary to your aeromodeling community-based safety guidelines
- Don't fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes
DJI, a Chinese company that makes drones, is going to program its drones with “no fly zones” with the help of GPS technology. In a video clip from CNN, Randy Jay Braun, DJI’s Director of Product Experience, states, “The no fly zones are around every major airport or sensitive building.” Also, in response to the recent White House incident, the company announced that a number of the Phantom models would be updated with software that disables them from flying within a 15.5-mile radius of the White House, and continues to update this list with other sensitive areas or buildings.
While the dangers of consumer drones are apparent, the FAA guidelines provide users with a better sense of what they can do and cannot do with their model aircrafts. Furthermore, drone-manufacturing companies will add more capabilities to their drones in the coming years. For example, DJI released the first of their Inspire models. The Inspire 1 is the first quadcopter with a 4K camera that allows the user to record aerial videos. Some of DJI’s drones have been rated as the best drones available along with products from Parrot, Hubsan, and Walkera. If the technology is used responsibly, they can be enjoyable to use.