R.I.P. Christmas drones; many already go missing
It was but two days after Christmas when the Fenno family lost their new gift: a drone.
The Melbourne residents were visiting family in Georgia when they took the drone for its first spin. It was dark, said Kaitlee Fenno, but the drone had lights so the family assumed it was in the clear.
“We were out in a long drive with an open field near the bottom, so we thought for sure we wouldn’t lose the thing even with the surrounding woods, and especially with the bright lights,” said Fenno.
But it only took 10 minutes for Christmas drone 2017 to go missing in action.
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“Apparently my husband took the drone too high, or something happened where it lost connection with the controller — perhaps the battery died, but I suppose we will never really know,” she said, noting they tried to chase it down to no avail.
The Fennos story is like many who with bright eyes took shiny new drones out for a test run only to come home empty-handed.
The popularity of drones has more than doubled year over year, according to NPD, a group that analyzes consumer and retail data. Drone revenues were expected to soar past the $1 billion mark in 2017, according to the Consumer Technology Association, with about 3.4 million sold just in the United States. During the holidays, retailers capitalized on the trend as lower-priced drones in the $50 to $100 range lined shelves from technology distributors to grocery stores. The Fennos’ drone was purchased at an Aldi.
But for many, the fun was short-lived. Dozens chimed in after the USA TODAY Network asked for missing drone stories on a popular Facebook parenting group.
“I tried to control it with the remote, but nothing I was doing seemed to control the thing. It just kept going up and away from me. I ran after it over to the next sidewalk still trying to control it or bring it down but lost sight of it and never saw it again,” said Stephanie Moinot of Melbourne.
Drones can be difficult to fly, said Chris Charron, an experienced drone hobbyist out of Titusville, Fla. It only takes slight adjustments on remote controllers, “a little goes a long way,” he said. And if you go too high or too far, the drone will lose the signal back to its command center. Charron uses a more expensive drone priced around $1,200 that has a GPS tracker and sends live video footage to his cellphone. However, lower-cost drones do not typically come with such features and are easily lost, he said.
Charron, who uses his drone to capture aerial shots of the Titusville landscape, has attempted to fly his drone in search of lost drones, but has yet to actually locate one, he said.
David Waters, a Melbourne videographer who flies drones professionally, said he knows a thing or two about losing drones and how to prevent it. It’s as simple as posting a label on the drone that has a name and phone number. Attaching a tracking device on it is also an option.
“I tried to run after it, but you can’t run after a drone … it’s like running after an airplane.”
David Waters, videographer
Waters lost a drone in the United Kingdom with precious video footage of a cousin’s wedding. He was able to locate the drone more than a year later after a couple found it in their backyard and tracked him down.
“I tried to run after it, but you can’t run after a drone … it’s like running after an airplane,” he said. ” … It’s like putting a bunch of propellers on your wallet and watching it fly away.”
He did say, though, that a drone is rarely far from where it was launched.
“What they’re going to find is the drone is a lot closer than they thought it was, it’s rarely ever miles and miles away,” he said.
But even with more drones airborne (and subsequently vanishing), it’s not just a free-for-all out there. There are limitations to where a drone can be flown and how high. Kelly Swartz, a lawyer from the Widerman Malek law firm in Melbourne, specializes in unmanned aircraft systems.
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She said users should first consult the FAA website for guidelines. Drones cannot be flown above 400 feet due to concerns about interfering with planes. They also can’t be flown within 5 miles of an airport, added Waters.
“Airspace is probably the most important issue,” said Scott Widerman, a partner at the firm who is also a pilot. “I’ve had at least one bird strike in my career and I had to replace a wing space in the front of my plane, but can you imagine hitting something harder than a bird?”
Drone pilots also cannot capture footage in someone’s backyard, said Shwartz. If it’s not something you can see from the ground, it is not legal to capture from a drone on private property.
“Even if they’re just taking pictures of their neighborhood they could be in violation,” she said, noting it’s part of the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act in the Florida Statutes.
Stick to open fields, RC parks for hobby airplanes or public places apart from private homes.
And if you see a drone buzzing in your backyard, don’t shoot it down, she said. That’s not legal, either.
“It’s a piece of property,” she said. “If someone’s car was left in your yard or a bike was left in your yard, you aren’t going to shoot it.”
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For those who master their drones and want to take their hobby to the next level or break into a new career, a new group was formed in Brevard County. AUVSI Space Coast drone group launched in November.
“The group is to bring together drone enthusiasts and like-minded people…and to encourage the younger generation that this is a field you could get into,” said Todd Hillhouse, who started the club.
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Hillhouse is the COO of Planet Inhouse, which uses and distributes drones armed with infrared cameras for commercial inspections and other tasks. His company also does FAA 107 training, which is the license needed to fly a drone commercially.
He said there is a bright future for the up and coming generation, and he hopes to bring drone training into the high schools one day.
“You have to be 16 years old to get your FAA 107, but try finding a drone pilot who makes less than $20 and hour … it’s a good opportunity for them,” he said.