Drone sales booming, creating a headache for the FAA
“We’re a bunch of geeks, pilots and (life) hackers,” said Brennan Zelener, organizer of the Fort Collins Drone Enthusiasts meetup group. “We all love building our own drones and getting together to see what happens.”
Fascinated with the technology, the Colorado State University graduate began building four-propeller drones, or UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles — about two years ago, just as the skyrocketing drone craze began. Zelener’s drone enthusiasts group has grown to about 180 members — and soon could see a rush of new members to the weekly meetups as giddy new drone owners open their shiny toys Christmas morning.
Some 400,000 recreational drones, priced between $40 and $1,600, are expected to fly off retailers’ shelves this holiday season. For the year, the Consumer Technology Association estimates about 700,000 will be sold, up 30 percent from last year.
“Oh, we’ve had all kinds of people coming in to check them out,” said Phil Knuckles, manager of RC Hobbies Fort Collins. “People are really curious.”
Bracing for the potential onslaught of unmanned aircraft soaring through the sky, the Federal Aviation Administration is scurrying to launch a drone registry before those drones are even unwrapped. The aim is to regulate hobbyists and reduce aerial dangers such as close calls with airplanes.
Under the proposal, released last month, drone owners would have to register the machines with the federal government, entering their name and home address in a national database, the first such requirements. Lose track and crash your drone, and authorities will be able to trace it back to you — and you could face potentially serious consequences.
The proposal, expected to be approved before Christmas, would be the biggest step yet by the government to deal with the proliferation of recreational drones, which are usually used for harmless flights around the neighborhood, but also pose a risk to airborne jets and raise concerns about privacy.
Currently, hobbyists can fly drones with few restrictions — as long as they are at least five miles away from an airport, out of no-fly zones, flying below 400 feet and keeping their drones in sight.
Fort Collins has no bans on drones — you just have to stay five miles from the Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport — but drones are banned in Boulder County’s parks and open spaces.
“We’re just seeing the beginning of what drones can do,” Zelener said.
RC Hobbies Fort Collins sells drones for as little as $40 — tiny quadcopters used for indoor flying only. Some of the most popular models, Knuckles said, are in the $100-$150 range and don’t come equipped with a camera.
“You can do some basic aerobatics with it. Flips and rolls, those sorts of things,” said Knuckles, a longtime flyer of remote controlled model airplanes. He said pilots of radio-controlled aircraft tend to self-police, and know the risks both to planes and people on the ground.
Technological advances, including GPS navigation, have made drone flying easier than ever, Zelener said.
“That barrier to entry is very low now. In other industries that’s a good thing, but it’s potentially dangerous with drones because of the safety aspect,” he said.
With a GPS-enabled drone, new operators might skip essential steps such as calibrating the drone before flying it. Failure to do that can mean the drone misinterprets “home” and simply flies out of sight and falls out of the sky whenever the battery dies.
And Knuckles reminds drone pilots that drones can’t sense objects in its path. He said a man recently brought to the store a damaged drone that flew into a power line.
The FAA has received hundreds of complaints in the past two years about drones endangering planes, interfering with wildland firefighters and entering secure airspace. In September, a New York City teacher was arrested for allegedly crashing a drone into an empty section of seats at the U.S. Open.
There have been 765 reports since November of 2014 through August by pilots of drones flying near manned aircraft, according to the FAA. This includes 17 such instances in Colorado, mostly in the Denver metro area. There were 238 unmanned aircraft sightings in all of 2014.
The concern from pilots is that if a drone collides with an aircraft engine, it could disable the engine much like birds do when sucked into engines.
“I hear stories from guys, they buy a new drone, charge it up and then see how far and how high it will go,” said Harry De La Cruz, of Autonomous Nation, a Fort Collins DJI drones dealer. “That’s the stuff that gives me chills.”
Autonomous Nation hosts free drone pilot classes every 60 days, teaching safe flying techniques. About 30 people attend each session, De La Cruz said, most of whom own drones with the intent of offering services like photography or aerial surveying.
“People don’t realize the damage a drone can do. A drone hitting someone in the head? That’s serious,” De La Cruz said. “People need to know what to do in all situations. Where is the nearest airport, or Flight for Life landing pad? Is there a wildfire?”
The FAA, concerned about thousands of new drone pilots entering quadcopters into the sky, is heavily promoting its regulations at knowbeforeyoufly.org.
Commercial drone operations take flight
While there are thousands of people flying drones around the park for recreation, thousands more see drones and think dollar signs.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit industry group that promotes the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, estimates that once UAVs safely integrate with airports and flyways for manned aircraft they will generate more than $80 billion of business by 2025.
Among the notable uses will be agriculture, with drones checking for yields and spraying crops and package delivery, via Amazon’s Prime Air. Already, Northern Colorado photographers and real estate agents use drones to provide aerial photos of properties, and roofers use drones to survey rooftops — without having to use a ladder. Other potential drone uses include search and rescue and law enforcement.
Tim O’Hara, a Fort Collins commercial photographer, owns a fleet of 22 drones, using them to take aerial photos of properties and buildings.
Commercial drone operators must apply for special approval to fly from the FAA, known as a Section 333 exemption. More than 2,500 companies have received the exemption, which requires commercial drone operators possess an actual pilot’s certificate, the same needed for piloting a small fixed-wing aircraft. The requirement may change to one that instead asks commercial drone users to pass an aviation knowledge test.
Before using his drone to photograph CSU’s campus, O’Hara calls campus police to let them know. He says very few drone users take this precaution.
“Someone, somewhere is going to do something stupid. It’s just a matter of time,” O’Hara said.
De La Cruz said the FAA’s proposal to register all drones is a good first step, but he’d like more regulation. His proposal: a required license and registration system, just like we use for our vehicles.
“You should have to take a test. Can you proficiently get this thing off the ground and fly and land it safely?” De La Cruz said. “Drones, they’re an amazing technology. Now, let’s take care of it.”
Drones and the outdoors don’t mix
Some 400,000 drones are expected to be sold this holiday season. The FAA is heavily promoting these safe flying regulations at knowbeforeyoufly.org. Stephen Meyers/The Coloradoan
Zelener has used his drone, affixed with a GoPro camera, to film himself skiing at Cameron Pass and his friends mountain biking the foothills west of Fort Collins.
Ski resorts, such as Cooper Mountain and Winter Park, are considering partnering with a film making company to create so-called “drone zones” that will film you and your buddy skiing — for a price.
Other ski resorts, like Crested Butte, have banned all use of drones, for sake of keeping the outdoors serene.
Last summer, a Dutch tourist crashed a drone into the hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, prompting the National Park Service to ban drones in all national parks.
“We have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks,” NPS said.
Also last year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife banned the use of drones for scouting game.
Drones are permitted in the national forest, unless there are temporary flight restrictions, such as during a wildfire.
“I get it. People are outside for a reason. I was concerned that people were going to be concerned about their safety, or annoyed by this drone flying above them. But overwhelmingly, I’ve found that every time I’ve flown my drone, people have been fascinated by it,” Zelener said.
Xplore reporter Stephen Meyers covers the outdoors and recreation for the Coloradoan. Follow him on Twitter @stemeyer or @XploreNoCo.
Know before you fly
While it is OK to fly a drone in your home, or a microdrone outside, the FAA’s regulations on flying drones currently include:
•No flying above 400 feet
•Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
•Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
•Never fly within 5 miles of an airport, unless you first alert air traffic control or the airport authority
•No flying over any other person not involved in the flights, which means no flying over strangers at the park or in a parade. Experts say the rule regards both privacy and safety, preventing drones from crashing on people’s heads.