“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
According to industry reports, the UAV sector will see $98.2 billion in total cumulative spending for drones over the next 10 years — $11.8 billion of which will be for non-military commercial drones.
And, while the swarms of new drones buzzing over our heads have the capacity to improve lives, the reality of any emerging technology is that, sooner or later, someone will cause harm through recklessness or ignorance. How can you, the nascent drone pilot, avoid becoming the next cautionary headline? Heed the mistakes of your hapless forebears. Don’t do … this:
1. Don’t ignore your battery levels
Drones have made huge advances in remote-control technology. But, extended battery life remains the Holy Grail that manufacturers still must chase until such time as we finally get those dilithium crystals we were promised (you’re WELCOME, Trekkies). Most drones offer at most 30 minutes of flight time between charges – less with added payload.
So, if you want to avoid losing hundreds, even thousands, of dollars that represent your beloved drone, keep a constant eye on your battery life. Whether it’s in the form of LED lights or a mobile app for your smartphone, most drones have some kind of indicator that tells you, in real time, precisely how much battery you drone has.
If you’re doomed to be absent minded, buy a drone that has an automatic return function once it reaches a low battery level. In other words, consider buying a drone that can think for you when you have a brain fart.
Otherwise you’ll end up on the local news like this poor pilot who, after flying his new DJI Phantom 2 for only the second time, had to plunge into a lake in an attempt to retrieve it.
Under the heading of “know your environment,” be especially careful of flying a drone over a busy cityscape. Just ask David Zablidowsky. In May, the FAA fined the drone pilot $2,200 after he flew his UAV off a skyscraper in Manhattan. The drone smacked into two high-rises and crashed near Grand Central.
2. Don’t fly over your head (figuratively)
Although flying a drone can be a great gateway into a new side career (such as wedding videography) make sure you have the skills necessary to operate a UAV in a crowd before you make your “primetime debut.”
For the case study here, we turn to YouTube user WeddingMan123 who, in 2013, planned to film a wedding for a friend. While practicing for the real video shoot, WeddingMan123 reports: “I brought [my drone] around for another pass to make sure [the video shot] was smooth. I underestimated the lift time and it hit the groom on the side of the face. He had a cut on his cheek and the side of his head. I felt horrible.”
Although the groom was fine and the wedding went off without further airstrikes, Weddingman123’s tale is a cautionary one. Before flying over crowds, make sure you have the skills necessary to avoid “underestimating” (or overestimating) your drone.
3. Don’t assume everyone loves or knows about drones
In April 2014, The Guardian reported that a triathlete in Australia had either been struck in the head by a drone (she claims) or been frightened by the UAV to the point of tripping as she looked over her shoulder (the drone pilot claims). Either way, the moral of the story is clear: if you plan to film in a public space or at an event, effective public relations dictate that you remain open to apprehensive passersby and/or inform event organizers so they can, in turn, make participants aware.
For example, here is what happens when you launch a drone at a concert without telling anybody before hand:
And here is what an effective marriage between drone use and a concert looks like:
Whether the drone struck the triathlete or not, being proactive about safety can often nip such mishaps in the bud. Many people have never seen a drone in action but they HAVE seen enough “droids/robots/artificial intelligence gone insane” movies to get immediately creeped out upon seeing their first drone.
4. Don’t disobey the law (if the law is actually clear)
Anyone familiar with the drone community knows that current FAA rules regarding commercial drone use is definitely murky as a result, states have begun taking drone law into their own hands. Occasionally, however, the feds are pretty definitive about drone use.
Case-in-point: In June, the National Park Service banned drone flights in all national parks, claiming such flights could disturb habitats. Whether we agree with the reasoning or not, the agency’s rulemaking outcome was unambiguous.
The Cautionary Tale: In June, the NPS cited a German man for operating a drone at Yellowstone after the UAV crashed into a lake. He later pled guilty and agreed to serve one year of unsupervised probation and pay more than $1,600 in fines and restitution. In August, another drone pilot crashed a UAV into Grand Prismatic Hot Spring at Yellowstone. The moral is short and sweet: Know the local laws before you fly. If there is a black-and-white drone ban in your area, pack up the UAV. If not, go ahead and fly your drone.
5. Don’t be creepy
This should go without saying but, listen, um … don’t use a drone to stare at peoples’ butts. Especially at a beach. Especially with your kids.
Perhaps (since he hires me to write these posts), DRONELIFE editor Andrew Amato said it best when summing up proper drone safety: “Responsible drone use is not and will never be a crime. So fly responsibly, encourage the curious, educate the skeptical, develop awesome UAS applications, and let the lawyers do their thing.”