A drone of your very own for about $300

These aren’t your father’s remote-controlled aircraft. They can navigate via GPS and carry HD cameras.

THE WASHINGTON POSTAugust 20, 2013 

Christopher Vo pilots his drone as enthusiasts gather for the Maryland Fly In last month in Laytonsville, Md. The aircrafts spark concerns about privacy rights and their use by law enforcement agencies.

BILL O'LEARY — The Washington Post

Kevin Good thought there was an 80 percent chance he could successfully deliver his brother’s wedding rings with a tiny drone.

“The other 20 percent is that it could go crashing into the bride’s mother’s face,” the Bethesda, Md., cinematographer somewhat jokingly told his brother.

His brother was OK with those odds, so he signed off.

A few weeks ago, sitting in the back row at the ceremony near San Francisco, Good steered the drone to the altar, delivering the payload in front of 100 or so astonished guests. His brother grabbed the rings, then watched as Good buzzed the drone off into the blue sky.

“At the end of the wedding, that was what everyone was talking about,” Good said. “It was pretty awesome.”

This is the gee-whiz side of drones, a technology typically associated with surprise air assaults on terrorists. They are often no larger than hubcaps, with tiny propellers that buzz the devices hundreds of feet into the air.

But these flying machines are much more sophisticated than your average remote-controlled airplane: They can fly autonomously, find locations via GPS, return home with the push of button, and carry high-definition cameras to record flight.

Besides wedding stunts, personal drones have been used for all kinds of high-minded purposes — helping farmers map their crops, monitoring wildfires, locating poachers in Africa. One drone user is recording his son’s athletic prowess from a bird’s-eye view

But not every flier is virtuous. There are videos on YouTube of people arming drones with paintball guns. In one video — apparently a well-done hoax to promote a new video game — a man appears to fire a machine gun attached to a small drone and steer the device into an abandoned car to blow it up.

Privacy and civil rights activists worry about neighbors spying on each other and law enforcement agencies’ use of drones for surveillance or, potentially, to pepper-spray protesters.

“Drones make it possible to invade privacy without even trespassing,” said Amie Stepanovich, a surveillance expert at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “This is a real concern.”

In supporting a Maryland bill to limit law enforcement use of drones, an American Civil Liberties Union official testified, “In short, all the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life, a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”

Drone defenders, including the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, say those fears are overblown and threaten the potential economic benefits of commercial drones. The group predicts 70,000 new U.S. jobs and a nearly $14 billion economic boost.

“These concerns have had an impact on us,” said Ben Gielow, the general counsel for the unmanned-vehicle group. “There is a widespread belief that these are just military systems for persistent domestic surveillance. That’s just not the case.”

Right now, drones operate under the same rules as radio-controlled planes. Commercial use is not legal. Congress has mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration come up with rules by 2015 to integrate drones into the nation’s airspace. Hobbyists are supposed to fly the devices below 400 feet.

That has not stopped scores of devices from entering the market. There are generally three types of personal drones available.

• There is the toy market, which features devices such as the Parrot AR.Drone. It sells for $300 and can be bought online, at the mall or even through the online Apple store. The drone is controlled with an iPhone and operates over Wi-Fi, recording what happens below.

• Many newbies start off with the Parrot and eventually graduate to more sophisticated devices, such as the fully autonomous drones sold for upward of $600 by 3D Robotics.

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine, said the company was generating $5 million a year in sales early on and is now growing 100 percent year over year. His drones can fly for 15 or 20 minutes, with HD cameras attached. If a big gust of wind comes along, the drone knows how to stabilize itself.

• And then there are the $20,000-and-above drones, such as the Falcon UAV that police departments are purchasing. They can fly for hours at a time and coordinate with surveillance systems on the ground.

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