Until recently, aerial drones have been solely the province of dedicated DIY-ers or clandestine government agencies. However, due to the miniaturization of the sensing, localization, and control technologies inside them, drones are becoming increasingly common among casual hobbyists. Little more than a decade ago, the hardware in a common consumer drone like the popular DJI Phantom would have filled a small garage and cost a small fortune. Now, thanks to some impressive engineering wizardry, that same technology fits in the palm of your hand, and costs as little as a few lunches from Chipotle.
Besides sharing the same moniker, there is scant similarity between the controversial army of drones commanded by the U.S. military and the growing number of quadcopters hovering above American soil. The fixed-wing, jet-propelled weapons of war deployed overseas are rarely seen in our own skies. Most drones being sold domestically use a four- to eight-blade propeller design to take off and land vertically while being powered by a small rechargeable battery. Right now drones are being used by news agencies to get aerial footage, farmers to spray and survey crops, and hobbyists just looking to have a bit of fun on the weekend.
Regardless of the application, drone sales in the United States are currently soaring. Revenue from drones is expected to top $750 million within the next year. After that, the sky is both literally and figuratively the limit. Many project worldwide consumer and commercial drone sales to approach $100 billion within the next decade. And with the rapidly increasing demand comes a growing cadre of companies vying to stake their claim to potential pilots. This translates to an impressive variety of options if you are in the market for a new drone. Some companies like DJI, Parrot, and 3D Robotics offer more expensive solutions with GPS, image stabilization, and HD video capture. This tier of drones, while very versatile, range anywhere from $500 to $3000. This is a steal for the amazing technology inside, but $500 is still well north of what some are willing or able pay to fund their new hobby. Fortunately, for every $1000 Parrot AR drone, there is a $40 Hubsan X4, a mini quadcopter capable of some impressive aerial maneuvers. Beyond this, there are more novel offerings like the recently announced “Lily,” a friendly-looking drone that automatically follows you at a distance, capturing footage of you doing dramatic (or not-so-dramatic) stunts.
The number of applications for drones both big and small is rapidly growing. Companies like Amazon and DHL are exploring their use to deliver packages faster and more efficiently. Movie makers are using them to get aerial shots for a fraction of the expense of renting a helicopter. Even law-enforcement agencies like the Illinois State Police are using drones to survey traffic and analyze crime scenes. With so many (often camera-equipped) drones all vying for increasingly limited airspace, a multitude of privacy, safety, and liability issues are bound to follow. So far—short of an allegedly intoxicated pilot crashing his drone on the White House lawn and a “Mobile Mistletoe” drone drawing blood from a customer at a TGI Friday’s—there have been surprisingly few incidents. That said, without proper regulations in place, these seemingly harmless devices have the potential to affect our lives in not-so-harmless ways. Cities like London and Tokyo have already banned their use in public parks, citing concerns for the safety of park patrons and wildlife. Here in the States, domestic drone law is still under review, but there are some restrictions.
As of now, consumer-level drone legislation is actually somewhat lenient, but as these devices are becoming more and more ubiquitous, the FAA has seen fit to put a few regulations in place. Personal drones are not allowed over stadiums, national parks, government buildings, or military bases, and must fly below 400 feet at all times. Alternatively, those wishing to operate drones for commercial or journalistic purposes must obtain a special certification that takes 2 to 12 months to acquire. Companies operating drones for large-scale commercial applications must apply for approval on a case-by-case basis. Right now this process is such a slow, bureaucratic nightmare that both Google and Amazon have opted to build test facilities overseas rather than wait for a decision.
So while it may be a while before your next Kindle is dropped on your doorstep via miniature helicopter, there is hope on the horizon. This week, Democratic Senator Corey Booker and Republican Senator John Hoven introduced the Commercial UAS Modernization Act, which, if passed, would see the turnaround time for approval greatly reduced, while establishing clearer guidelines for safety and operation. The fate of the bill is still up in the air (last pun, I promise), but a number of legislators have already expressed concerns that the U.S. is falling behind in commercial UAS innovation. Meanwhile, there are no more proposed FAA restrictions on personal drone use, so you are free to fly to your heart’s content.