Prepare to see more objects hovering above you. One aviation consulting firm, the Teal Group, estimates that about two million consumer drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, will be sold worldwide this year alone.
Drones have been used by the military for several years, but as sales of their civilian cousins rise, so do safety concerns among regulators and law enforcement agencies, which worry about everything from drone collisions with airplanes to crashes into crowded stadium events.
In December, the Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules that will require nearly all owners of remote-controlled recreational drones to register in a national database, an attempt by the agency to address safety fears about the machines. Regulators are expected to complete rules next year that will make it much easier for drone operators to fly them for commercial purposes. Here is what drones will increasingly be up to in the skies:
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft systems, are more advanced versions of the model airplanes hobbyists have flown for decades. They come in airplane and helicopter varieties, sometimes with eight or more spinning rotors. While drones are typically piloted from the ground by a human with a radio controller, many are also capable of autonomous flight along programmed coordinates.
It’s tough to get a precise estimate of drone sales because most manufacturers are private companies. The Teal Group consulting firm estimates that of about two million consumer drones that will be sold worldwide in 2015, about a third will be in the United States. Revenue in the market is expected to jump to about $1.4 billion this year, from $750 million in 2014, Teal estimates.
Some hobbyists buy drones for the sheer joy and challenge of flying an object in the sky, but the biggest thrill for many is capturing spectacular high-quality photographs and video from an aerial vantage point. While commercial use of drones has been restricted in the United States, there is excitement about uses that include the filming of Hollywood movies, inspections by insurance adjusters and precision agriculture, in which crops are surveyed and sprayed by drones. Ultimately, companies like Amazon hope to use autonomous drones to deliver light packages to doorsteps quickly by air.
One of the biggest safety concerns about drones is that they could collide with aircraft, endangering passengers and pilots. Drones capturing aerial footage of wildfires have hindered efforts by helicopter and airplane pilots to put out the blazes. The flying vehicles have crashed near spectators at crowded events like the United States Open and a football game. There are also concerns about use of drones to violate privacy and to smuggle weapons, drugs and other contraband into prisons. Some drone makers like DJI are developing software that will prevent people from piloting their drones into restricted airspace.
Aviation regulators in the United States currently authorize business use of drones on a case-by-case basis, and have done so for more than 2,000 applicants so far. By 2016, they hope to have rules in place that will make it much easier for commercial operators of drones to fly.
For hobbyists, it is far easier to fly a drone, a holdover from an earlier era when model aircraft enthusiasts faced few hurdles to getting off the ground. Still, hobbyists must obey a number of rules, including keeping their drones below 400 feet, avoiding the space around airports and never letting their drones leave their sight.
Under new rules announced in December, nearly all owners of remote-controlled recreational drones are required to register in a national database. Drone owners are required to submit their names, home addresses and email addresses with the F.A.A., disclosures meant to nudge users to be more responsible, officials said.
The F.A.A. will introduce the website for registration on Dec. 21; registering will be free for the following 30 days (go here – Small UAS Registration Rule). After that period, the fee for each individual drone user will be $5 for a three-year certificate of registration. Anyone who owned a drone before Dec. 21 will be required to register a machine that weighs between half a pound and 55 pounds by Feb. 19, 2016.