If you find a drone under the Christmas tree next week, it may also come with a list of U.S. government guidelines for safe flying and even software to keep the device away from airports.
Sales of the small, unmanned aircraft are soaring this holiday season, prompting fears that first-time users could accidentally crash them into people, buildings or even aircraft. Retailers, including Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), are taking steps to educate buyers of the high-tech toys.
“I do not want to be flying in my airplane and be run into by one of these things,” said Cliff Whitney, a private pilot and owner of Atlanta Hobby in Cumming, Georgia, one of the largest independent suppliers of civilian drones in the U.S.
Atlanta Hobby has seen business jump to about $20 million in annual sales, a 10-fold increase from five years ago that prompted Whitney to start a drone-training school. The explosion in sales is worrying some airline pilots and even drone advocates, who said that newly minted unmanned aircraft operators don’t understand the risks.
“The more frequent the operations of these unmanned aircraft, the higher the risk factor is, especially as folks explore the edges of the envelope,” said Sean Cassidy, the national safety coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union in North America.
The Federal Aviation Administration reported drone safety cases for the first time last month, showing incidents had grown to more than 40 per month.
Just in November, a drone struck and injured a woman at a Florida antique show, and a small copter flown at a TGI Fridays restaurant in New York cut the nose of a news photographer. In September, a man was arrested and charged with flying a drone within 50 feet (15 meters) of a New York Police Department helicopter, and an airline pilot reported a flight into New York’s LaGuardia Airport almost hit a drone.
“It’s out of control,” said Patrick Egan, an editor at the website sUASNEWS.com who has mostly been on the other side, pushing the FAA to expand permission for drone flights while crafting clearer rules.
“I was at the grocery store and you can buy a drone,” he said. “Everybody’s selling them now. It’s going to get weird.”
While the FAA permits hobbyists to fly drones for fun, the equipment being sold goes far beyond the agency’s parameters.
The FAA prohibits hobbyists from guiding a drone by video images, insisting they be flown only within line of sight. Yet such video equipment is widely available and marketed to drone buyers. Long-range radio links, which allow drones to fly far from a user’s view, are also available.
Three of the largest drone makers, closely held SZ DJI Technology Co., France’s Parrot SA (PARRO) and Berkeley, California-based 3D Robotics Inc., said sales are strong as new models arrive for the holiday-buying season.
Revenue at DJI, the leading drone manufacturer, has grown by a factor of three to five times per year since 2009, said Michael Perry, the company’s Hong Kong-based spokesman. While he wouldn’t provide specific numbers, the South China Morning Post reported the company had sales of $131 million in 2013.
Colin Guinn, 3D Robotics’ senior vice president for sales and marketing and a former partner with DJI’s North American unit, said the attention drones are getting this holiday season is a function of that growth.
“That pie is growing so fast that it’s very noticeable to people who are not in the industry,” Guinn said in an interview.
Amazon is selling more than 10,000 drones a month, according to two industry officials who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak about the company’s sales.
A spokeswoman for Amazon, Mary Osako, didn’t respond to e-mail and telephone message seeking comment on drone sales.
The drone manufacturers and some retailers like Whitney’s company have begun efforts to better educate users and to use technology to limit dangerous flights.
The latest versions of DJI’s Phantom, which sells for as little as $600, includes software automatically preventing flights within 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of major airports around the world, according to DJI’s website.
Amazon’s Drone Store includes instructions on how to “Fly Responsibly,” including a link to a hobby group’s safety guide.
Still, in some cases flight limits can be overridden and they don’t always match up with the FAA’s restrictions. For example, the FAA says drones shouldn’t be flown within five miles of an airport without permission from agency controllers.
Enthusiasm over the new devices has shown up in the halls of Congress, even with growing controversy over safety and privacy posed by the devices.
“I’ve got a quad-copter on my Christmas list as I suspect quite a few people do,” Representative Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, said at a Dec. 10 congressional hearing.
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