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Recreational Drones: Out of Control

New Safety & Privacy Laws Are on the Horizon

Sales of recreational drones are booming as remote-controlled unmanned aircraft become less expensive and easier to operate. However, experts tell us that it’s confusing to figure out where you may fly a recreational drone legally, and new federal regulations are forthcoming.

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Those remote-controlled flying machines that are known as drones are seemingly everywhere these days. You can find recreational drones in places as varied as the airspace above residential backyards to the deserts of Dubai, where 1-pound racing models zoom 60 mph as operators compete for prize money of $1 million.

Some drones are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and are designed as toys that are meant for your home or yard. Others can shoot thousands of feet into the sky. Self-piloting drones can steer around objects in their flight path and send streaming video to far-off operators. Drones can land themselves with the push of a button. Some drones record high-definition video, and some first-person-view (FPV) drones can beam video to a smartphone, tablet computer or wearable headset, so the operator can see what the drone sees and feel as though he/she is flying.

If anything, the skies will get busier with recreational drones. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that 1.6 million drones were sold in 2015 in the United States. That compares with 430,000 drones that were sold in 2014, according to Consumer Technology Association, which is a trade organization. FAA expects sales to take off as drones become less expensive, easier to operate and capable of more-elaborate operations. FAA estimates that 1.9 million drones will be sold in 2016.

However, current and future recreational-drone owners have plenty to consider as drones increase in popularity. Recreational-drone regulation is a fuzzy mess that 12 experts tell us almost certainly will become more complicated in 2016. Municipalities and states are passing laws that pertain to safety, privacy and the nuisance of overhead drones, and FAA will create its own regulations for drone pilots.

More Than a Toy

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GETTING STARTED. Recreational drones come in a wide variety of capabilities and prices. You can pay as low as $15 for a toy drone or as much as $5,999 for the DJI Inspire 1 RAW, which has a removable 4K video camera that rotates 360 degrees and can tilt up to 125 degrees. The Inspire 1 also is made of carbon fiber, has retractable landing gear and has a flight range of up to 1.2 miles, and two operators can control it—one pilot and one camera operator. Conversely, most drones are made of plastic and have a range of up to a half-mile, and one person controls them.

Drone manufacturers 3D Robotics (3DR), DJI and Parrot sell about 80 percent of the recreational drones in the United States. Recreational drones fall into four categories. Aerial-photography drones start at $400 if you own a camera that can attach to the drone and $600 if you want a camera included. Racing, or FPV, drones start at $250. They fly low to the ground and include cameras that beam video to a smartphone, tablet computer or headset, so the operator can see what the drone sees in its flight path. Hobbyist drones start at $300 and are built to a consumer’s specifications. Toy drones typically cost $15–$90 and are designed to be flown in a backyard or home for about 5 minutes at a time.

All drones typically measure 11–32 inches in diameter and include four to eight propellers that span 3–10 inches in diameter. Drones have removable, rechargeable batteries that typically provide at least 12 minutes of flight time and as much as 25 minutes on a full charge. (Batteries typically last 1 year, depending on how often that you recharge them.) You typically launch, land and navigate a drone through the use of a Wi-Fi signal that’s sent through a controller, smartphone or tablet computer, in the same way that you would fly a remote-control airplane or helicopter. All drones use GPS signals to calculate their flight path and position in the sky. In the past 2 years, manufacturers introduced a “follow me” feature in recreational drones that start at $299. This allows the operator to use a drone to shoot video of himself/herself while he/she engages in other activities, such as motor biking or water skiing.

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