If it’s not a bird, a plane or Superman, chances are that the unidentified flying object making the rounds in your neighborhood is a drone. While tech companies and businesses work toward commercializing drones — hoping that they’re the future of deliveries for everything from online shopping to thin-crust pizzas — recreational use is going mainstream.
Last month, a Trinity River Vision Authority-sponsored video of the fireworks over Fort Worth’s Panther Island Pavilion shot from a drone equipped with a GoPro camera caused an online sensation. Casual users also have made headlines for less-than-sensational reasons — losing a remote-controlled aircraft atop AT&T Stadium in Arlington, or flying too close to downtown Dallas buildings.
Chad Frazer, leader of the North Texas Drone User Group, an organization that boasts more than 300 members, says drone technology and accessibility is changing rapidly.
“This stuff is growing exponentially,” he says. “There are always new gadgets coming out.”
Ready-made drones are hitting the market regularly, with each new model making flying a drone easier than ever before. Martha Stewart (yes, that one) recently shared with Vanity Fair that she owns a Parrot AR. Drone 2.0 to take photos around her property.
Yet, drones are more regulated than many other remote-controlled devices, and the guidelines continue to be debated and updated.
Before buying what is seemingly a pretty fun toy, here are some things to know that will enhance your enjoyment and make the flights safer.
1. Know what you want
Frazer says the first step is figuring out what kind of drone user you plan to be. Do your homework, then determine whether you want to buy a ready-made, out-of-the-box drone, or whether you will work to build your own. There are also several types of “unmanned aerial vehicles,” from fixed-wing models, which look more like airplanes, to the increasingly popular four-rotor, helicopter-style drones, also called quadcopters.
They can range greatly in price, with basic models starting around $150 and more sophisticated models going for as much as $2,000. Know that the Federal Aviation Administration says recreational drones should weigh less than 55 pounds. The Internet is the best place to buy drones, as they’re not stocked on a lot of store shelves — yet. (We did recently spot one at a Barnes & Noble for $300.)
2. Decide what to do with it
Even if you just want to hover your drone around your back yard, knowing its purpose will help steer you in making your purchase. Frazer recommends researching some of the popular uses, from learning the technology to practicing search-and-rescue challenges to annoying your cat, before you buy. It’s even more important to do your research now that some uses — like surveillance and photography — are becoming more regulated by lawmakers.
3. Steer clear of airports
When it comes to recreational drone use, Tom Blakeney, vice president of the Fort Worth Thunderbirds Radio Control Club, a model aeronautics group, says safety should be the No. 1 concern. This means keeping any flying objects out of the paths of real, life-sized aircraft. “Be extremely careful where you fly,” he says. Blakeney suggests staying five miles away from airports; a recent FAA ruling says, in fact, that anyone operating an aircraft within five miles of an airport has to provide the air traffic controller with advance notice. Also, FAA regulations state that model aircraft flights should be kept below 400 feet.
4. Seek wide-open spaces
It’s also important to stay away from crowded areas, where there are lots of people and private property. Though technology has made flying a drone pretty user-friendly, it’s still not without danger. Frazer says that most accidents occur when operators fly too close to trees or buildings. By flying in wide-open spaces, you’ll help prevent accidents. “If you fly in densely populated areas,” Blakeney says, “there’s a chance that if you crash, you could hurt somebody.” In other words, your idea to capture a dreamy holiday video of your child’s Nutcracker performance from high above the stage should remain just that — a dream.
5. Not for profit
A recent clarification by the FAA mandates that in order for drone or model airplane use to be considered recreational, no money can exchange hands. So if you are planning to purchase a drone with the plan to make money — be it from demonstrations or even taking pictures of real estate — you might want to rethink your purchase. Taking pictures of grapevines grown for personal enjoyment to see how they’re maturing is fine; viewing vineyards that are part of your commercial wine-making operation — not so much.
6. Camera shy
In Texas, lawmakers have legislated against using drones to capture photos of people or property without permission — punishable by a fine. While there are many exemptions, spying is a pretty frowned-upon practice. If you want to see how your neighbor’s prize-winning barbeque is grilled, you’ll have to knock on the door.
7. It’s a breeze
“Believe it or not, they’re scary easy to fly these days,” says Blakeney, referring to the quadcopter. “There used to be barriers to entry based on skill. Now the barrier of entry is based on price.” If fear of a learning curve is keeping you from droning, don’t let it. Many buyers can easily have their drone up in the air in no time.
8. Find a crew
Part of the fun of learning about and flying drones is social. Get connected through the North Texas Drone User Group ( www.dugn.org), or find friends in the area who fly. Frazer says it’s great to have peers when you’re just starting out. “We will shortcut all the pain and suffering of flying in the wrong area,” he says. His group offers newbies lessons, but they also get more technical — everything from designing, building, flying, teaching and consulting with local schools and business on drone technology.