Giving you the lowdown on Drones

drone-flying-lakeDrones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are whirring around everywhere we look. They’re delivering packages, tracking terrorists, and supplying some of the best camera angles we’ve seen in years.

But what exactly are they, and how do you get your hands on one?

With somewhere around zero minutes of flight time under my belt, I was a complete beginner as I set out to see what it really takes to get into the drone game. I did some research and thought I would share it with you in this guide.

Drones 101

Drones are available in all sizes and shapes and for now they’re not just toys anymore. Under FAA regulations, hobbyists must keep their vessels lower than 400 feet and the commercial use of drones is restricted under the agency’s current framework. However, that is expected to change in the near future (update: new regulations are here).

So, whether you’re scoping out a new line of work or filming your buddy as he drops in before you, drones are effective, flexible tools for the outdoors.

What exactly is a drone?

Drones, quadcopters, UAV, sUAS – there are a lot of names for the little (and not so little ) flying robots that, over the next five to 10 years, are expected to take over the skies. Here are the basics of what you need to know to kick off your drone obsession.

Technically speaking, a “drone” refers to any unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can get around entirely by itself through the help of GPS tracking systems. In the real world, “drone” often means any UAV, some of which have autonomous flying capabilities, many of which do not– but rather are simply “smart” RC helicopters or airplanes. Many of these UAVs have on-board cameras, crash-avoidance systems, and other high-tech settings not available on traditional RC flying vehicles, making them a kind of hybrid between standard RC fliers and true drones.

Take a look at this amazing video that filmmaker Phillip Bloom made during a holiday in Thailand. If this doesn’t make you want a drone, I don’t know what will:

In the terms of government, police, or military drones, we’re referring to large, terribly complicated UAVs, operated by exceptionally competent pilots. For our purposes, let’s just forget all about these futuristic killing machines for a moment and focus on the fun side of drones.

Learning to Fly

Okay, so, now we (kinda) know what drones are. How hard are they to fly? It all depends on the specific aircraft. Some are easy enough for your grandmother to get going, others dang near need a computer science degree and a pilot’s license to keep in the air. Fortunately, you can start off simple, and move up in complexity (and functionality) as you hone your skills.

This video gives you an idea of what you’ll need to do to get started:

Drone Etiquette

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Yes, these camera-equipped drones could be used to spy on people. Don’t be a perv – that’s rude, and quite possibly illegal. Note that Federal Aviation Administration rules say that you can’t take your drone over 400 feet in the air, and you can’t fly it out of the line of sight– even if you’re guiding it with the help of the camera.

Additionally, once you get a bit of practice, you might start thinking about how to make money from your newfound drone talents. But beware: The FAA prohibits all “commercial drone” purposes, unless you receive special permission from the agency, which isn’t easy to do. Reconsider before you put “Aerial photographer” on your business cards.

Take things slowly when you’re first getting going. There will be lots of time to show off your skills– once you really have some.

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