Drones are set to take off this Christmas - but there are unexpected dangers in the skies

Now that they have cameras and a vaguely menacing name, remote-control flying gadgets are set to be a very popular present this year - but think before you stick one under the tree, says Seth Stevenson, as he turns test pilot
Click to follow
The Independent Tech

I'm dreaming of a drone Christmas. Tiny drones tucked into stockings. Bigger drones beneath the tree. A drone for Dad, another for Junior, a third for your cool tween niece.

Anecdotal reports suggest that drones are topping Christmas lists all over the place. Why are shoppers so excited? 1) These newer-model aircraft are meant to be far easier to fly than their predecessors. 2) They have cameras, allowing for all manner of creative (or mischievous) projects. 3) Folks just seem to be jazzed ever since we started calling these things "drones".

Rechristening a "remote-control toy helicopter" a "drone" suggests that, soon after unwrapping his present on Christmas morning, your teenage son will be executing lethal missile strikes in Yemen. And indeed there has been a vaguely menacing edge to a lot of recent drone hype. Consumer drones have starred in many a techno-dystopian horrorscape: French authorities freaked out when drones mysteriously appeared above nuclear power plants. A US property owner riddled a drone with bullets when it encroached on what he considered his personal airspace. Kanye West is afraid that drones might electrocute his daughter.

Despite the new, badass nomenclature, remote-control aircraft have been around for decades. I suspected these new drones were still just toys with a scarier name, and that buying one made the user less a slick paramilitary operative and more a dorky model-plane enthusiast. Thus my plan was simply to test out a couple of these gizmos and find out which one would make the best holiday gift.

The DJI Phantom drone next to its joystick

One of the leading consumer drone brands is DJI, and its Phantom drones are hugely popular, so I tried one of these first. When the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter arrived (yours for £899 on Amazon.co.uk), I pulled it from its box, screwed on its propellers (as though I were assembling a very small piece of Ikea furniture), and folded open its one-page "Quick Start Guide". The steps looked straightforward. Thinking I'd run a casual, preliminary experiment – maybe send the thing 10 feet in the air and then immediately land it – I walked to a playing field around the corner. After switching on the remote control and the drone itself, I calibrated the drone's compass as the guide instructed. All systems go. I fired up its four propellers.

Now, before I characterise what happened next, I'd like to issue a disclaimer: I am mostly not an idiot, but sometimes it is useful – in my guise as a tech writer – when I act like one. Why? Because most of us act like idiots at one time or another. We are harried, and distracted, and it's Christmas morning and our kid wants to fly her drone RIGHT NOW. So we glance at the Quick Start Guide and think, hey, looks easy, and thus we wade into a minor catastrophe.

Anyway, here's what happened. The drone lifted off the ground and, despite all my efforts to control it, ascended to a height of 20 feet before veering straight into the chain-link fence at the edge of the field and wedging itself deeply therein. I had to climb up the fence to retrieve it. It was stuck good.

Perhaps a wiser person would have paused at this point. I did not. Undeterred, I again followed the steps in the Quick Start Guide – calibrating, starting the propellers, nudging the drone into the air with the joystick. The events that followed are seared into my brain like freeze-frames from a car accident. The drone zoomed to a height of 50 feet or so, far above the top of that tall chain-link fence I'd been counting on to limit potential damage. The airborne monster did not respond to my frantic jiggling of the joystick, or to my plaintive cries of "Come back!" Instead it rose and rose – and then suddenly rocketed sidewise at an alarming velocity. I watched in terror as it flew across a busy street and crashed into the third storey of a tall building. It tumbled to the pavement with a clatter of broken, scattering plastic.

A man flies a Parrot Rolling Spider (AFP/Getty)

A very nice woman stood by the wreckage to safeguard it for me as I ran across the street to inspect the wounded drone. Its camera was sheared clean off. Its propellers had snapped. Its battery pack had flown loose and been badly dented. It was pure luck that nobody got hurt. I felt immensely guilty and unspeakably stupid. I genuinely hoped that no witnesses would report me to the cops.

"The most dangerous thing in that box is the Quick Start Guide," says Peter Sachs, a drone advocate and the founder of the Drone Law Journal. "There should be no such thing. Your experience isn't surprising – learning from just the Quick Start Guide is inevitably going to result in a crash." Sachs says that any new drone owner should be sure to study basic aeronautics and meteorology, and should initially operate only under the tutelage of an experienced drone pilot in a designated recreational airspace. I did none of that, and, yes, shame on me. At the same time, I've a strong hunch my desultory approach will be replicated again and again, in the days following Christmas, by excited drone newbies all over the country. People very rarely choose to study aeronautics when they can look at a Quick Start Guide. We are impatient. We do dumb stuff.

Which – given that these things weigh as much as a steam iron, soar through the skies at 30mph, and have whirring propellers just hankering to slice through somebody's cornea – suggests that maybe there ought to be some regulations out there to protect us from ourselves. Can you just fly a drone anywhere? Like, say, smack in the middle of a crowded city? Without any kind of permit?

When I poked around, it seemed like the rules were fuzzy. In the US, there are prohibitions on launching drones in national parks and other federal airspace. And the Federal Aviation Administration offers some sensible, long-established guidelines for model aircraft: don't fly them higher than 400 feet, don't fly them within five miles of an airport without alerting the control tower, and so forth . Yet most cities and states still have no regulations that specifically apply to drones. There's no law specifying, for instance, that I can't buzz a drone through the middle of Manhattan in the middle of rush hour. Though the legal landscape on this stuff seems to shift by the day.

After my own traumatic drone crash, I'm worried about recreational drone pilots who are acting like morons. Drones can be dangerous. Consider, to raise just one potentially nightmarish scenario: a drone came within a few feet of a passenger jet's wing tip near JFK airport last month. Next time, it might get sucked into an engine and cause a large-scale disaster.

I attempted to fly the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ one more time, but I couldn't coax its propellers to start. I probably broke something important during that violent crash. (By the way, the fact that DJI includes a handful of extra propellers in the box suggests it's well aware of the potential for mishaps.) Anyway, I found I was relieved not to fly it again. I'd been chastened by it, by what it could do.

But now you're wondering what you're supposed to do since you already promised your kid a drone. Relax, I've got you covered. Most of the major consumer drone companies – such as the aforementioned DJI, and another firm called 3DR – make serious drones that tend to appeal to the technically minded. But a French company called Parrot makes delightful little drones that are far less intimidating.

The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 (£299.99) is substantial enough to provide long afternoons of fun even for parents and older kids, yet its slightly gentler speeds and foam propeller guards make it far less scary. Want something cosier still? The Parrot MiniDrone Rolling Spider (£89.99) is a teensy drone that can zip around your living room. Both Parrots let you use your smartphone as a remote control, and they take sharp aerial images that automatically load to your phone's photo cache, where you can edit them like a Hollywood director using helicopter footage.

If you want to study aeronautics, lug around a boxy remote, and launch your aircraft into the heavens, get yourself the DJI. It will provide great fun for adults or mature teens willing to put in the necessary prep time and behave responsibly. If, on the other hand, you and your kid want to mess around with a really cool toy, straight out of the box, in the confines of your back garden, get the Parrots.

Be aware: even the Parrots still pose some minor hazards. I administered an unintended haircut to a potted plant in my office when the AR Drone's propellers hovered too close. And an attempt to launch the Spider from my hand resulted in a small slice on my palm. For the most part, though, these are quite suitable for beginners. Or maybe don't buy a flying drone at all. Have you considered a nice, gravity-bound remote-control vehicle?

This is an edited version of an article that appeared on Slate.com

The laws on flying drones in the UK

Would-be drone rangers unboxing new toys this Christmas should think twice before launching sorties over, say, Sandringham to catch a glimpse of what the corgis really do on Boxing Day. The Civil Aviation Authority has warned that ignorance is no defence in cases of breaches of what are pretty clear laws (as long as you have some kind of sense of distance).

Drones must not operate over or within 150 metres (492 feet) of a congested area or organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 people (a fair, say, or a football match). Nor can they fly within 50 metres (164 feet) of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the "pilot", or within 50 metres of any person except during take-off or landing.

In short, unless you're in the countryside, a big park or a massive garden (that doesn't involve invading royal airspace), you're potentially flying into trouble.