Did you hear about the beer-delivery drones getting 86ed in Minnesota this past week? Sounds like the punch line of a joke, but ever since Amazon’s Jeff Bezos dropped Dronapalooza in December, the topic of these flying robots has become daily water cooler discussion. So what gives? Is this the dawn of the drone age? Yep, it sure is.
So what exactly is a drone?
For many people, the word drones conjures either dreams of ultra-convenient deliveries and Jetson-like flying robots … Or fears of a dystopian future where Terminator-types are patrolling the skies and highflying Peeping Toms are poking around in all kinds of personal stuff.
The definition of a drone has changed over the years, and now refers mainly to aircraft that have the capability of autonomous flight. That means it can be programmed to fly from one point to another, dodging obstacles like power lines and people, through sophisticated sensors. To be considered a drone — or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — vs. A remote-controlled aircraft (the kind that hobbyists have used for years), it has to fly itself, from takeoff to landing.
Drones are already delivering goods in some areas of the world. They’re also helping with disaster relief, search and rescue, weather monitoring, scientific observation, farming and even sheep herding. And have you seen the aerial photography coming out of some of these backyard beauties? Amazing.
But are we ready for burrito-bombers toting tortillas through our lunchtime rush anytime soon? Not so much.
THE STATE OF DRONES.
The FAA is currently working on a way to account for drones within U.S. Airspace, with six states currently testing drone flights: Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia. Congress is pushing for a plan to be in place as early as next year, with drones weighing less than 55 pounds being cleared for takeoff even earlier than that. But a watchdog group just came out and said the FAA won’t make its September 2015 deadline. What’s the rush? The commercial drone industry is projected to create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding drones and that has, understandably, caused a good deal of concern. The idea of flying robots crash landing in our front lawns or sneaking unwanted snapshots through our bedroom windows doesn’t sit well with anyone.
PERSONAL DRONES ARE A DIFFERENT STORY.
But when it comes to personal drones — like the ones you can buy or build in your very own backyard — there are already a few rules in place: Drones are restricted from flying above 400 feet, near highly populated areas or anywhere planes are landing and taking off, and they must always remain within the operator’s line of sight.
Of course, that’s not stopping geeky tech lovers from putting their DIY skills to the test and crafting drones of their own. In fact, current estimates put the number of homemade and hobby drones at around 30,000. Most people who have a “personal” drone now — including me — are using it as a recreational hobby. It’s my latest new fun tech toy — something to can experiment with, and use for simple, geeky fun.
YOUR OWN UFOSo what do you do if you want your very own? The most painless way to satisfy your drone desire is to either buy or build one. One of the most popular commercial models comes from Parrot. The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 will set you back less than $300 and can be controlled by an iPhone or iPad app. The drone features a 4-propeller design and can even record HD video of its flight. We’ve also tested the Blade QX 350 GoPro drone, which retails for $470. The QX has more bells and whistles than the Parrot, with GPS/Altitude Hold, and a SAFE Circle feature that protects novice pilots from expensive crashes or dings to the ole’ noggin. My family and I have had countless hours of fun with both, though the Blade calls for more tech-savvy than the Parrot.
Of course, if you’re more of a hands-on type of tech lover, there are a ton of like-minded people online who have built, and continue to design, homemade drones of their own. Communities like DIY Drones have tens of thousands of members who build drones in all shapes and sizes. One dad’s DIY version even keeps a watchful eye on his son’s walk to school in Vermont. (Jokes about helicopter parenting anyone?).
What do you think? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section below and stay up to speed with all the latest drone developments at usatoday.Com.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY’s digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.