On a recent Saturday afternoon, my daughter and I were walking through the mall when she pointed out that a book store was selling a drone. Until then, it hadn't hit me just how mainstream drones have become. And of all places to be selling them, a drone sat on display right between the new Adele CD and copies of the latest Harper Lee novel.
Despite it seeming like an odd place to sell a small, working aircraft, it was worth a look. The drone didn't appear to be a very sophisticated model and, for just about $200, you wouldn't expect it to be. The better ones can costs thousands. I picked up the box and looked at my daughter with something that must've been a little kid's glimmer in my eye.
"I want one," I told her. I'm not sure why, but I do. It must be something about the combination of flying a model airplane that can send me a bird's-eye view — and some cool video and photography — from above. It brings out the geek in me, and apparently I'm not the only one.
The Consumer Technology Association, a U.S. trade organization for the consumer electronics industry, believes drones will be a popular gift this holiday season, predicting that as many as 400,000 consumer versions of them will fly off the shelves before the end of the year. And the Consumer Electronics Association sees it as a defining year for drones and expects shoppers to spend as much as $105 million to buy upward of 700,000 the entire year, according to a news release. Couple this with drones that are being used by farmers, news outlets and businesses such as Amazon that promise drone deliveries in the near future, and the skies could get pretty crowded in the not-so-distant future. Pretty soon, maybe this year, maybe next, it might be drones, not bicycles or sleds that kids (and their parents) will rush outside on Christmas morning to give a whirl.
Drones typically aren't very big, maybe the size of a car tire, made of plastic or some kind of metal with two or four propellers to keep it aloft. They are controlled on the ground using a remote control or a smartphone app and are equipped with a high-definition camera that can take still photos or video. Pretty cool, right?
But before anyone rushes out to buy one, know that the rules for operating them will be changing. For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration might soon require registration of drones. Laws and regulations will also be changing as legislators try their best to catch up with the technology. Right now, the FAA already has a list of common-sense rules for flying drones, including requirements to keep them below 400 feet and away from manned aircraft, not within five miles of an airport and away from groups of people or stadiums, as well as a rule that the operator must have a visual line of sight on the craft at all times. Here in Maryland, legislators are looking at privacy concerns mainly by trying to pass laws that would prevent police from using drones in certain situations. The fear is that these camera-equipped aircraft could be used to peer into windows or to fly over someone's property without a proper search warrant. A few delegates and senators, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, introduced legislation earlier this year to curb any privacy abuses from drone use. But the measures didn't get very far in Annapolis.
Rules aside, people are getting pretty creative with drones. There are some breathtaking outdoor videos that come from them and some quirky stories online. One was of wedding rings being delivered to the bride and groom at the alter by a drone piloted by a groomsman in the back row. Aside from these gimmicky tricks, drones can serve some serious purposes, too. For instance, a recent video produced by Lehigh Cement in Union Bridge shows the path of its new conveyor belt system from a few hundred feet up to give some perspective on how the system will run from the company's new mine in New Windsor to its headquarters. The images help put the project into perspective for the county and neighbors.
But for as many cool things these drones can do and for as much as I might want one, I honestly don't see any practical reason for me to have one now, even if I do think they're cool. My daughter, who shares my interest in photography, might have a better reason to one day own one. When she does, I'll probably be the first to volunteer to test it out.
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Paul Milton is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.