Drones take flight with consumers; safety worries rising, too

Drone demonstration
Andrew Aarestad, who formed the Minnesota Autonomous Vehicle Meetup three years ago to build a community of drone devotees, demonstrated how to fly a drone Monday, May 4, 2015 at Bryn Mawr Park in Minneapolis.
Martin Moylan | MPR News

Drones are increasingly sophisticated and affordable, and they're attractive to consumers who see them as a way to take photography and other hobbies to new heights.

But there's also growing concern about how many are in the air and who's flying them.

State and local governments are taking steps to regulate drone use, mainly to prohibit snooping by individuals or law enforcement. One Minnesota town, St. Bonafacius, has banned drones altogether within city air space.

Right now though, a growing number of recreational users are piloting small drones, which generally weigh less than five pounds and are about the size of a small microwave.

"It's flying robots," said Andrew Aarestad, who formed the Minnesota Autonomous Vehicle Meetup three years ago. The community has grown to about 240 devotees of drones. "They're fun to play with and fun to use for all kinds of hobbies," he said.

Aarestad often flies his 3D Robotics drone at Bryn Mawr Park in Minneapolis. He says it's a safe place to fly, with plenty of open space and lots of spots to land safely. For recreational drone users, Aarestad says the two big drone activities are photography and racing — "You make your drone really fast. You tune it up so you can turn it really sharp."

The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that U.S. consumers will buy 340,000 drones this year. That's more than a 50 percent increase over last year.

So, it's not surprising Best Buy is getting into drones in a serious way. The retailer sells drones in about 600 of its stores and through its website. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to nearly $3,000 for top models sold online.

At the end of this month Best Buy will start selling a new 3D Robotics Solo drone. At $999, it'll be the most expensive drone the retailer has sold so far in its stores. Using a smartphone app or remote controller, operators can automate the drones' take-offs, landings and flights, which can last up to 25 minutes.

"It's not super cheap but it's not at a price point that's out of this world," said Best Buy spokesperson Ryan Stanzel.

The drone can stream high-definition video back to a smartphone from up to a half-mile away. "It takes point of view to a whole new level," Stanzel added. "Especially serious hobbyists have the ability to do things they've never done before."

Recreational users are supposed to follow the rules for model planes. The FAA requires keeping the aircraft in sight at all times, below 400 feet, well clear of manned aircraft, people, stadiums and obstacles like power lines.

Some drone operators have been reckless, however.

In January, an out-of-control drone crashed on the White House's South Lawn. At a TGI Friday's restaurant, a drone bearing mistletoe flew around inside the restaurant, as the operator tried to inspire couples to kiss. But the stunt turned bloody when a landing went awry and the drone's blades put a couple of slices in a news photographer's face.

Late last year, the FAA released a report detailing about 200 drone incidents. They ranged from the sighting of drones flying too close to aircraft to the misuse of drones in residential neighborhoods and around ballparks.

Two of the incidents occurred in the Twin Cities. One person was caught operating a drone at a parking ramp at Target Field, and a realtor crashed a drone into a building.

Retailers, manufacturers, the FAA, and the association representing model aircraft owners are trying to ensure that people piloting drones can do so safely and responsibly. They're providing guidance at points of sale and with drones.

But the signature effort is the Know Before You Fly website.

"Certainly, there's a need for an education for the new users of this technology," said Rich Hanson, director of regulatory affairs for the Academy of Model Aeronautics. "The vast majority of them are conscientious individuals who would choose to fly safely and responsibly. They just need the information to do so."

A drone flies over a North Dakota farm field.
An unmanned aircraft with a three-foot wingspan flies 400 feet above a farm field near Lynchburg, ND on Wed., May 21, 2014.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2014

Many states have enacted laws that restrict how individuals may use drones. Wisconsin prohibits using a drone to observe someone in a place where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The FAA generally bans use of drones for commercial, for-profit applications.

Without FAA permission, even a farmer, for instance, can't legally use a drone to check the health of field crops. A real estate broker can't fly a drone around a house. A commercial photographer can't use a drone to get an aerial shot.

The limits on commercial drone use, however, are often ignored, said Twin Cities aviation attorney Don Mark.

"There are a number of people not only operating but even advertising aerial photography work and agricultural work that are doing that for commercial purposes and they're doing so illegally in the eyes of the FAA," he said.

Meanwhile, Mark says insurance companies are getting increasingly interested in drones, concerned about the accident claims that could be coming.

"If you cause any injury of damage on the ground under Minnesota law, you're responsible for that," he said. "And I would think that most people would want to have adequate insurance."

There's no doubt the FAA remains leery. Proposed new rules would limit the range, altitude, weight and air speed of commercial drones to an extent that would likely preclude Amazon and other retailers from using the flyers to make deliveries in urban residential neighborhoods any time soon.

The FAA can issue exemptions, Mark added, but the agency has only approved about 300 commercial uses of drones nationwide, two of them in Minnesota.

State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, expects Minnesota will have to regulate drone use, with an eye toward protecting privacy and public safely.

He expects it'd only take a few high profile incidents or accidents to spur legislation.

"I think it's inevitable, if for no other reason than the exponential proliferation of drone technology," he said. "The more and cheaper it becomes the more you're going to see it out and about and around, and the more concerned people are going to be."

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