To the mad pilot of Marblehead, who crashed his drone into a crowd of spectators at the town’s Memorial Day parade, here’s a word of advice: Park that thing until you learn how to fly it.
Such mishaps are likely to be much more common as drones become the next breakout technology. Businesses of all kind are eager to fill the skies with the buzzing minature aircraft, from real estate agents seeking a God’s-eye view of their properties to electric utilities wanting an easier way to inspect power lines.
The demand for skilled operators is likely to soar if, as expected, the Federal Aviation Administration loosens its limits on drone flights for business purposes. But as the hobbyist in Marblehead proved over the weekend, flying a sophisticated machine that looks like a large model aircraft is beyond the skill of most amatuer pilots.
Thus, the emergence of a new ground-level business: For as little as $225 anyone can now learn to operate a drone like a professional.
Abby Speicher is among the entrepreneurs who are launching companies to capitalize on the sudden popularity of this new technology.
Fresh from receiving a Master’s in Business from Babson College, Speicher has started DartDrones, one of the first flight schools to teach people how to fly a drone. Since December it has trained about 250 fliers.
Her timing is propitious. In February the FAA proposed a set of new regulations for commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs, as drones are also called. The government expects it will take at least a year to finalize the rules, which will likely create a new type of pilot’s license that will be much easier to get.
In the meantime, Speicher and her co-founders — her father Chris, and Army National Guard veteran Chris Costello—are hiring licensed instructors and getting ready for an aerial gold rush.
“I believe that once the UAV license is out from the FAA, almost every business and industry is going to realize the importance of drones,” Speicher said. “It’s going to be essential for many businesses.”
Currently the FAA requires commercial drone operators to have a pilot’s license and companies must get a special exemption to operate UAVs. Only about 450 have been issued. An amateur flyer can just unpack a drone and lift off. But you can’t fly a drone for money unless you’re qualified to fly a real airplane.
The FAA’s caution is well-founded. With thousands of drones trolling the skies, the agency is concerned with mid-air collisions, especially with commercial aircraft. The FAA is also trying to determine if drones can be safely flown over long distances, beyond the pilot’s range of vision, as well as how to vet pilots to reduce the risk of drones being used to commit crimes, or acts of terrorism.
Yet even at its nascent stage, the civilian use drone market is already sizable. Just one drone maker, the Chinese firm DJI, posted sales of $500 million in 2014, according to the technology news website The Verge.
That’s a lot of drones, with many more to come once businesses go airborne.
DartDrones is an authorized dealer for DJI, and trains people on the company’s popular Phantom, a four-bladed helicopter style craft that comes equipped with a 14 megapixel camera and sells for about $1,200.
The DartDrones curriculum was designed by Andrew Clement, a 26-year-old economics undergrad at Northeastern University who spent a year flying recon drones over Baghdad for the US Army.
Even the entry-level course is full of detail. Students first learn the basic FAA regulations that apply to all drone pilots, amateur and commercial. You can fly only during daylight hours, below 400 feet, and the aircraft must remain within sight at all times. If you’re within five miles of an airport, you call its air traffic control tower, describe your flight plan and ask permission before taking off.
And never fly over a group of people, especially the people of Marblehead.
The entry-level course takes about three hours and DartDrones offers a second, more advanced class, also three hours long and priced at $225.
Drones such as the Phantom have specific procedures for takeoff and landing, just as with real airplanes. Perhaps the most important is the setting of a GPS “home point,” the place where the drone will automatically go if it loses touch with the operator.
Speicher remembers one friend who launched a Phantom, only to see it go zooming away. Sure enough, the drone was still set to an earlier GPS home point.
“We were five miles away from the last place he’d flown,” she recalled. “We drove all the way back—and there it was, sitting there.”
Cute story. But for five miles, that drone was out of human control, mindlessly hurtling through the air, its location and exact course unknown. What if it had smashed through an apartment window or sliced across an active runway at Logan Airport? The FAA reports that between June and December of last year, there were 25 near-collisions between planes and drones, or just over four per month.
At this rate, an irresponsible drone operator is going to hurt somebody, probably soon. That’s why every one of you with a drone should ask yourself—do you want to be that guy? And then you should land that thing until you learn how to fly it.