Drone sales soar, but owners unaware of safety risks Special

Posted Aug 19, 2015 by Caroline Leopold
As sales of remote controlled aircraft or "drones" skyrocket, recreational flyers fear they may lose their rights to the air.
Hobbyists fear they may lose their flight privileges because the public has grown wary of the dangers of so-called drones.
Hobbyists have been flying and crashing model planes for 80 years, but there's been a "paradigm shift" with the new generation of model pilots, said Rich Hanson, director of government and regulatory affairs at Academy of Model Aeronautics. The Muncie, Indiana nonprofit has seen a surge in members to 176,000 members.
Before, modelers loved to build and fly their own planes. Now, people buy aircraft and are more interested in taking pictures and video footage from the air, said Hanson. Also, first-person view technology allows pilots steer from the ground but get a view as if they are in the cockpit of the tiny aircraft.
According a Consumer Electronics Association report, 2015 is a "defining year for drones," with a projected sales of 700,000 units in the U.S.
Sales of remote-control aircraft have soared while prices have plummeted to under $50. Even models that have cameras onboard can cost less than $200. The products are usually made overseas have few, if any instructions.
Will Americans need to worry about swarms of drones and hobby planes crashing into windows or onto cars?
"People buy economical aircraft, play for a while, break it, and throw it in the trash or put it on a shelf," Hanson said. "They think these things will fly themselves. The first step is to get information in hands of consumer and that hasn't happened."
Hanson, a lifelong modeler, had a long aviation career. He flew AH-1G Cobra helicopters in Vietnam and had a 27 years in active duty. He also flew civil air rescue helicopters in Arizona.
Safety in airspace
What about safety problems with hobby aircraft interfering with wildfire and medical rescue?
"In my career flying rotor and fixed wing craft. Rescue flies low and slow and will encounter drones," he said. "But when you get that low, you're subject to all types of hazards like telephone wires and wire antennas."
The "Know Before You Fly" campaign was launched by three national aviation organizations to share rules of safe flying. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, and the Small UAV Coalition. The Federal Aviation Administration is working with the campaign to share air safety information.
One problem is there is little if any safety information included in the packaging of unmanned air systems. These low-price devices are made offshore by many different manufacturers.
According to Hanson, another problem is that this technology is "prone to failure" and hasn't been tested or certified for safety. Hanson said the new technology is pieced together from other parts meant for cellphones and other electronics. These devices aren't usually tested in high altitudes and in wet conditions.
Amazon has endorsed "Before You Fly," and has volunteered to offer safety information to customers, but the AMA is trying to make safety messages more prominent.
Sharing the air with companies
Companies are looking into ways to use unmanned aircraft for commercial use. It's possible the industry could crowd out recreational flyers.
"We have had a longstanding place as a recreational activity for decades and protective of that," Hanson said. He added "FAA is yet to finalize rules on UAS for non-recreational use. We're very watchful and protective."
The FAA said on August 12 in a news release that drone sightings by pilots have more than doubled to 650 from last year.
The AMA wants the FAA to release more information about what pilots are seeing, "What are they talking about? Toys or something more substantial, " said Hanson. Lumping a small quadcopter with military drones like the Predator and Global Hawk is not helpful in solving safety problems.