Drones Are Not Good Christmas Presents

Illustration for article titled Drones Are Not Good Christmas Presents

With just over two weeks before Christmas, parents are rushing around to buy their kids the must-have toys of the year, and one thing that's high on that list is the remote-controlled drone. But before you buy a drone, consider the idea that maybe it's not such a smart purchase.

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If you're thinking buying a drone for someone, especially someone young, you should consider some important things like price, airspace and even legislation. Yes there are drones out there that can be had for less than fifty bucks. But do you ever really want to buy the cheapest of anything that you want to last a long time? The cheap drones are tiny, fragile, and have lousy battery life. In the hands of your average 10 year-old, I bet it doesn't last three days before it breaks.

Think about where you'll be flying it. Do you live in a typical suburban neighborhood? Consider your airspace. How many houses and trees are around where this new toy will be played with? Will the neighbors appreciate it when they have to retrieve the drone from their backyard? Will you appreciate it when Junior dents the side of your car with it?

Illustration for article titled Drones Are Not Good Christmas Presents

$680 Phantom drone with a GoPro camera by Don McCullough (Flickr / CC Commercial License)

Then there are the idiots who are still flying their drones too close to airports and airborne aircraft. This is a major safety hazard, as they could potentially cause catastrophic damage if one were to be ingested into an engine. From June through November of this year, the FAA reported 25 incidents where personal drones nearly collided with piloted aircraft — both general aviation and commercial airliners.

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The regulations around drones are still very much up in the air. They've already been banned from all of the National Parks, as the National Parks Service worried that the noise and proximity to wildlife would disturb their their nesting, reproductive and migratory habits. Regulations for using drones as a commercial business are under discussion, but the FAA has said they may not be complete until after 2015. The FAA has published a list of guidelines for drone and r/c aircraft operators:

Illustration for article titled Drones Are Not Good Christmas Presents
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Drones are pretty amazing devices, and when used by people who know what they're doing, they can bring back some cinema-quality video. We've seen drones used to terrorize a college campus, fly through a fireworks display, and even film some aerial pornography. GoPro is reportedly developing their own drone, after people have strapped GoPro cams to drones for several years now.

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I'm not saying all drones are bad. I think it would be fun to have one, but it's really not practical for me to have. The real problem with drones is their operators.

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Top image by Mauricio Lima (Flickr / CC Commercial License)

Paul Thompson is a aviation journalist with over 13 years of experience working in the airline industry, who maintains the website Flight Club for Jalopnik.com. You can contact Paul to submit story ideas, your own "Plane Porn" photos, and comments regarding this or any other aviation topic via email at Paul@Jalopnik.com

DISCUSSION

Finally a decent article on drones!

One thing to point is that almost all drones one the market, and those being built by hobbyists, are still classified as model aircraft, and are subject to the rules regulating that sector by the FAA or TC (at least in North America).

The hobby has been under these rules (like don't fly near airports or above 400' AGL) for decades, and there has never been an issue. People were mindful of what they were doing, because until recently, the radio control hobby was very expensive to get into, and there was an immense skill set needed to build and operate a miniature aircraft.

In the last ten years, however, most of those required skills have been superseded by "ready-to-fly" models (RTF), and marketing strategies (looking at you DJI) that have made it appear that there's no skill involved. Buying a quad is just like picking out a new cellphone or TV, if you believe the hype. DJI's website in particular reads like an Apple advert, ignoring the important info that hobbyists would want, and replacing it with slick graphics and overly simplified numbers that look good to a consumer.

This is an incredibly dangerous marketing ploy, and has led many weekend warriors to think a drone is a cool toy, rather than something that could easily lead to a fatal accident if used incorrectly. Literally hundreds of YouTube videos surface daily of people flying these things (almost always Phantoms) dangerously, either far above the FAA mandated altitude restrictions, into cloud, where IFR traffic can't, and isn't expected to, see and avoid collisions, near or in controlled airspace, and in the departure paths of departing traffic.

Now, for the first time in 50 years, the FAA is changing the rules regarding the hobby, because for the first time we actually pose a risk.

My advice is the same as always - If you are buying a drone, or any other kind of R/C aircraft, please go to a local R/C field to learn to fly it properly, get advice from guys that have the knowledge glossed over in the manual, and do NOT fly it outside of the FAA or AMA guidelines, such as over people, events, or anywhere that could injure someone or damage property if something goes wrong.