Drones: Mature Enough for Holiday Gifts

Hobbyist (non-commercial) drones, technically called “unmanned aircraft vehicles” (UAV) or “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS), are still in the early stages of rapid growth in popularity. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimated in 2016 that there were about 1.10 million in operation with expected increases to 2.15 million by the end of 2017 and 3.55 million – possibly as many as 4.47 million – by the end of 2021.

Before a March 2017 federal court order halted an attempt by the FAA to require registration of most hobbyist drone operators, over 620,000 persons had registered. (Commercial drone operators are still required to register.) At present, nearly all hobbyist drones are covered under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft – faa.gov/uas/getting_started/fly_for_fun – that pretty much allows anyone to fly one subject to common sense restrictions: Keep them under 400 feet, keep them within sight, don’t fly them into things, don’t fly them over groups of people or sporting events and so on.

My own experience as an early adopter in the drone world has been to watch as technological capability has steadily improved to the point where the frustrations of a few years ago are beginning to be corrected, making them suitable for holiday gifts for the first time this year. My most recent purchase a few years ago was a Syma X5C, about the cheapest at the time that carried a decent camera capable of video and still photography, and I chose it specifically because spare parts kits were widely available to replace propellers as it crashed into things and motors as they burned out. Its seven-minute battery life between two-hour recharges significantly limited the fun, leading to my purchasing a bunch of extra batteries.

Tyler Gates is the drone expert at Hardcore Hobbies in Warwick, a 19-year-old engineering student at Johnson and Wales University who has been working with drones since he was 15, starting with competitive robotics in high school. “It’s an addiction, it really is, flying these drones. You get addicted to it in a very good way. It gets you out of the house. It gets you out and flying and having so much fun,” Gates said. “Once you get hooked, you get hooked. I’ve been doing this for years and I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon.”

Owner Justin Allen concentrates on the radio-controlled land vehicles that make up most of Hardcore Hobbies’ business, but said that radio-controlled aircraft are a growing fraction of sales. The store has been open for about 10 months, he said, after purchasing fixtures and inventory from the old Ray’s Hobby. The name “Hardcore Hobbies” was chosen by his children, ages 9 and 6, he said. His existing store on Bald Hill Road in Warwick is well stocked but far too small for competition space accommodating either land or air vehicles, so he said that he plans to open an additional, larger facility, probably in Coventry.

Asked how someone should get started with hobbyist drones, Gates compared it to deciding whether to learn to drive a car with an automatic or manual transmission. “You have two options. Either you can go the really nice, stable route which, personally, is the way I recommend because they’re the safest. Go with the bigger brands – DJI, Traxxas – any of those that have the GPS built into them and the stability systems built into them… because they’re so stable and safe that they will stay in the same spot you left it for 20 minutes [even] with wind. It’ll just sit there and it won’t move because of all the computers inside of it, the GPS, everything.”

Alternatively, Gates said, “You could go the complete opposite route and go with one of the smaller ones… because those are more difficult to fly but they’re so much more fun to fly. And they’re cheap, so you can smash them into a wall, pick them up again, and keep flying them and they’re not dangerous… You don’t want to be flying them at people, obviously, but if anything like that happens, you hit a wall with it, you clip something, you’re back up in the air in minutes and flying again. It’s a great way to learn because you’re starting somewhere difficult instead of spending more money on the easier to fly.”

One kind of customer, typically between ages 15 and 25, Gates said, tends to choose custom-built racing drones. “They’re willing to crash these things, but… they’re exciting. I can build a custom racing drone for someone for three-, four-, five-hundred dollars, somewhere in that range depending on quality, that will do 100MPH, but then you can plug it into a computer and have it do 5MPH. They love that customizability… Plus, it’s cheaper than going outside and working on your car, it’s the same type of thing… it’s just transferred over to these drones where you’re not spending four or five grand on a turbo kit, you’re spending three hundred dollars on a new set of motors and propellers.”

Another kind of customer, especially people buying for someone else, “will go with the slower, more professional, style with the high quality cameras, they’re the ones that can go out three miles, 400 feet up, and get these beautiful, National Geographic-style shots… You have that ability for roughly the same price point, you can get into one of those super-high-quality ones for $400-500,” but beyond that prices range up as high as $10,000, Gates said.

Although the four-propeller quadcopter is by far the most popular form factor for ease of flying and stability, Gates said, other configurations are possible: eight- and even 12-rotor designs can lift more weight, while three-rotor designs perform more like helicopters and are therefore relatively difficult to fly. Lower-priced drones might have battery life as short as seven or eight minutes between recharges, while higher-priced drones can often remain aloft for 30 minutes or more.

Battle Drones package of two at Hardcore Hobbies

Battle Drones package of two at Hardcore Hobbies

A battle drone kit, priced around $100, includes two drones and two controllers that can “dogfight” each other by “firing” infrared light beams, recording “hits” in a kind of aerial fencing match or real-life video game. The fighter drones, one white with red trim and the other black with blue trim, are each quadcopters with a tip-to-tip span of about three inches and intended for indoor use. “These things are awesome for you and a buddy” and also ideal for kids, Gates said. He suggested an Estes Proto-X for those who only want an inexpensive single drone.

He showed off a Traxxas Aton priced around $330, a fairly hefty quadcopter with a tip-to-tip span of nearly two feet that is designed to carry a GoPro camera (not included); an optional automatically stabilizing gimbal mount can be added to keep the camera smooth in flight. He also showed a Traxxas Alias, a smaller cousin of the Aton, priced around $110, with a controller that makes available a substantial amount of automated, computerized flying assistance.

Tyler Gates of Hardcore Hobbies holds a drone from the Vusion 250 Extreme FPV Race Pack by Hobbico.

Tyler Gates of Hardcore Hobbies holds a drone from the Vusion 250 Extreme FPV Race Pack by Hobbico.

Although Gates sees building custom racing drones as a core mission for the store, they do carry pre-built models such as the Hobbico Vusion 250 Extreme FPV Racing Kit, “a really, really, really good intro to racing.” FPV, an abbreviation for “first person view,” means that the operator on the ground sees live and in real-time what they would see if they were inside the virtual cockpit of the aircraft. For $360, the drone and controller kit includes “everything you need to fly, camera built right in. This thing is amazing… fully FPV, you actually have a set of goggles… with a screen that goes into the goggles, and you just throw it on your face and go… This is a complete, ready-to-fly device,” Gates said.

The Vusion 250 has three different modes – beginner, intermediate and expert – that provide automated flying assistance ranging from quite a lot to none at all: If the aircraft is taken out of level flying position, beginner mode will automatically return it to level position fairly quickly, intermediate mode will automatically return it to level position more slowly, and expert mode will take no action and assume you know what you’re doing. Expert mode is useful for racing where tight turns are advantageous, Gates said: “Taking corners at high speeds with drones is like driving a rear-wheel-drive car on ice: You’re still moving forward another hundred feet, but you’re doing it in an arc.”

Above the $400 price point, Gates strongly recommends custom building. “When you go custom with someone like me… I work through with you afterwards saying, ‘Hey, this is how you do this.’ I take you out… and it’s a better experience than just straight off-the-shelf. It might be a little more money, but you’re also getting the personal individuality between two people of ‘Here’s how to fly it, here’s how to tune it,’ so you don’t have to come back to me to get a perfect tune, you can go home and try it, where with one of these [indicating the Vusion 250] the directions are to take it up and fly it.”

Rhode Island has informal gatherings of as many as 100 people who get together in large open spaces to fly safely both cooperatively and competitively. “The drone community is there. Help is there,” Gates said. “Even if you get a $20-30 drone, there’s still community based around that. I used to specialize in the cheap drones, the little ‘toy’ drones, because they’re so much fun to work on, they’re so much fun to crash, so much fun to fly, because you have no worries… you’re going to be able to smash into a wall and just laugh it off and pick it up and fly, and if you break something, buy another one or buy a [repair] part.”

Privacy concerns from hobbyist drones are unrealistic with current technology, Gates said. “They’re not scary, they’re not going to be peeking into your window. They can’t do that. I have videos and examples of drones up 50 feet and I cannot see faces: I can see shapes but I can’t see faces. They’re loud, you know when they’re coming, it’s like a lawnmower or a weed whacker: If one’s in your neighborhood, you can hear it or you can see it because they’re a good size.” Drones that are capable of intruding upon privacy are not hobbyist types, Gates said, but cost many thousands of dollars. “It’s just not something that happens.”

Gates also emphasized that hobbyist drones are less dangerous than ordinary power tools if used with comparable caution. “They are super safe to fly. As long as you’re not sitting there with your face in a propeller or reaching up to grab one as it’s flying or has propellers moving, as long as you have that common sense, you’re not going to get hurt… You wouldn’t reach into a blender.”

Drones are a popular gift, Allen said. “We see a lot of people coming in saying, ‘I’m going to get one for my kids,’ and then decide ‘I’m going to get one for myself.’ We see that a lot… When you get the bug, it definitely consumes you.”

Chris Rennick, a customer in the store, said that he first bought a cheap drone at the mall for about $20-30. Beginning about two and a half years ago, he started buying more serious models and now has four DJI drones, three Phantoms and a Mavic. Flying drones “a couple of times a week,” he uses them mostly for recreational photography, even once capturing a whale in Narragansett Bay while standing on shore. Such higher-end drones, he said, are smart enough to return to their take-off point before exhausting batteries and use GPS to “geo-fence,” refusing to fly into restricted areas such as airports or military bases. Despite spending a fair amount of money on his radio-control hobby for both land and air vehicle, he said his wife is supportive: “She knows I love it.” His kids, ages 9 and 6, have their own little drones and also enjoy flying them, he said, joking that, “All men are 9 and 6 years old, forever. We never truly grow up, except when we have to.”

Drone safety and regulation: knowbeforeyoufly.org

Hardcore Hobbies: facebook.com/HardcoreHobbies

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