from Independent.co.uk‘s James Vincent
The first thing you notice when flying a drone is just how eager the damn things seem. The thrust provided by their palm-sized rotors is usually four or five times their total weight and the resulting craft are almost indecently fast, capable of zipping a hundred feet into the air in seconds or skimming half a metre above the ground at speeds exceeding 30mph.
The craft I’m flying in London’s Victoria Park isn’t, of course, the bulb-nosed, fixed-wing aircraft deployed as terrifying “hunter killers” in the Middle East, but the slick successor to the RC model airplane.
The name ‘drone’ itself has been applied to both civilian and military remote controlled aircraft since at least the 1940s, but a new breed of small, easy-to-fly craft is opening up the skies to amateurs and companies alike, bringing with them all the problems and opportunities of any newly-contested territory.
Amazon has spoken of providing home deliveries using them, while charities hope they will be able to provide aid to people in disasters and drought-stricken areas.
I’m flying it with Mark Steyn, a former City worker and director of OnDrone, a UK company that sells custom drones to everyone from hobbyists to private military contractors.
“Before these drones, it was all very mechanically complex,” he says. “You had to build something aerodynamic and learn how to fly it – slowly – and pretty soon you’d crash it and have to rebuild. It took time. Now all the difficult stuff is in the electronics; it’s more accessible and there are new models coming out every day.”
Like most toys these drones are the result of decades of technological refinement, with many of their most critical components –including GPS and processors – benefiting from the billions of pounds of research and development poured into the smartphone industry in recent years.
Our craft is a custom rig costing around £1,000, with features including a GPS-guided auto-return if the pilot loses control. But cheaper models go for as little as a few hundred pounds.
This combination of low price and easy access is causing a boom in the market, but it’s also leading to headaches for regulators as enthusiastic amateurs test the limits of their new-found freedom.
In the US there have already been a number of notable accidents including a “near miss” between a pair of drones and a New York police helicopter, a drone crash-landing into a geyser in Yellowstone National Park, and an incident in which a crowd of drunken ice hockey fans downed what they thought was a police surveillance drone monitoring their celebrations. Footage of the last incident, uploaded online, shows a throng around the craft (which in fact was a commercial model) chanting “We got the drone! We got the drone!”
In the UK and the US, drone usage is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) respectively. On both sides of the Atlantic there are clear rules about when and where to fly drones but such rules are difficult to enforce for amateur pilots. And while the FAA has essentially banned all commercial operations in the US until a review scheduled for the end of 2015, the UK has welcomed the fledgling industry.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com