Demystifying Drones

While the word alone may conjure up scary thoughts, by definition drones are simply autonomous (aka unmanned) mini flyers. They are basically more advanced versions of old-school RC helicopters, supped up with built-in gyros, accelerometers and GPS capabilities.   And thanks to advances to smartphones, new nano-sensors and micro-components, we’re seeing more finely-tuned, longer-lasting, mini-copters. 

Today they are mostly used by consumers for photography and videography purposes, but applications are far-reaching. So what can be done with drones?! Here is just a small sampling of projects that drones are currently helping to facilitate:

  • Deliveries: Amazon and Domino’s have both shown the capabilities for rapid deliveries via drones.
  • Sporting Events: Drones are excellent at capturing sports, like they did at the last Olympics.
  • Real Estate: What better way to get aerial shots for potential buyers? (But first check state regulations!)
  • Environmental Monitoring: The EPA and NASA have both used drones to track environmental conditions.
  • Farming: Drones are great for aerial surveying, especially on vasts plots otherwise very difficult to do manually. Some more expensive drones come with a wide variety of sensors to measure plant health and water quality.
  • Construction: A research team in Zurich choreographed drones to weave tensile structures.
  • Surveillance: Police can use drones to help fight crime, or use on your own property to ensure no trespassers. 

Experts project the market to grow to $13.6 billion by 2016! With consumer drones starting as little as $50 for a basic unit (more feature-rich ones can be obtained for $250-500+), it’s a fun time for a hobbyist to get one! If you’re on the hunt for a flying robot, follow these guidelines:

  1. Set a budget. They range tremendously in price and function. Figure out what you are okay with spending before going any further. And remember to anticipate some additional costs. Whether for accessories or potential repairs, you’ll likely incur some costs after the drone is purchased.
  2. Decide ahead of time what you want it for. It’s usually good to decide why you want the drone – is it for general videography, surveying land, or filming skiing stunts?
  3. Set realistic expectations for your flying capabilities! More advanced ones are easier to fly with built-in GPS and additional sensors (altimeters, accelerometers, etc.) for stabilization.
  4. Consider battery life and range. If you’ll be surveying a vast land, you’ll need to make sure the battery will last for more than 15 minutes, which is all some of them can do before needing a recharge!
  5. Decide if you want a camera built-in. Some make it easy to attach your own, so if you already own a GoPro you may want to consider. Otherwise, it’s a good bet to have it included. If so, make sure it has the specs you want – not all take high-def and not all are great for image stabilization. It’s also important to think about whether you want live-streaming of the footage being recorded or potentially record, not just take photos on demand.
  6. Know if you want to go DIY or not. Some of the drones are ready to go right out of the box, others afford you the ability to modify them if you want.

While consumer hobbyists do not need any special license to fly drones, a ruling by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does make it possible for the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to take enforcement action against anyone who operates an unmanned aircraft in a careless manor.  So while it is still highly unregulated in the US, stick to pre-set (and moral!) guidelines for appropriate usage!