Are Personal Drones Dangerous Enough to be Banned?

November 21st, 2014 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus quadcopter with gimbal-stabilized HD video camera.

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus quadcopter with gimbal-stabilized HD video camera.

For months I’ve been wrestling with the urge to get a quadcopter drone for photography, and I would be interested in readers’ opinions on the subject of safety.

When people hear “drone” they often think of the large, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used to fire missiles at terrorists. But there is a new class of very small drones that are inexpensive and are usually used for aerial photography. Currently the most popular is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus.

These are legal to operate below 400 ft altitude, but not in the vicinity of airports. The National Park Service has temporarily banned them due to reports of excessive noise and disturbing wildlife (they sound like a swarm of bees when flying).

There are also a few reports of these things hitting people. Here in Alabama, someone operating one at the Alabama football stadium last weekend accidentally hit a pedestrian (who wasn’t injured).

The machines aren’t toys. You have to learn how to fly them (which is pretty easy). They typically weigh several pounds, which isn’t much…unless you smack someone in the head with it at 40 mph.

You don’t just turn them on and fly them. You have to go through a checklist of procedures, to make sure the drone isn’t going to get confused when you send it on its merry way. Sometimes the drones can experience “flyaways”, usually the result of the operator not making sure the drone had sufficient GPS signal to monitor its location and speed.

Now, it would be tempting to say we should just ban all drones, even for pleasure use.

But do we ban bicycles when their use (even for pleasure) leads to many hundreds of injuries, and even a few deaths, among pedestrians each year?

It’s only a matter of time before someone is accidentally killed by one of these things, and there might well be a knee-jerk reaction to ban them altogether.

I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. I’m curious what you think.

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