These aren’t military drones or the toy helicopters of your childhood. Today’s generation of battery-operated flyers are called “quadcopters” or “octocopters,” a term that describes the four to eight vertical propellers that allow the small aircraft capable of carrying a high-resolution camera and other sensors, such as GPS, to lift, dip and glide at angles.
The devices have been soaring off retail shelves as more outdoor enthusiasts use cameras, especially ones with video, to capture adventures. The trend is growing so fast the federal government has drafted special rules to regulate the “model aircraft” industry’s newest craze.
“Sales have increased through the notoriety the products have received in the news, but the main reason people are getting into the new technology is because they look cooler and are easier to fly than airplanes,” said Dave Connar, of HobbyTown USA on Bobby Jones Expressway in Augusta.
Up until last year, Connar said, hobbyists showed the most interest in quad and octocopters because of the technical assembly and large investment required. But if videos appearing online and on TV are any indication, he said the technology is becoming more accessible and may even soon top remote-controlled airplane sales.
Connar now has 10 to 20 models in stock that range in price from $40 to $850.
“There are just more out there,” he said. “I carry quadcopters no bigger than your thumb.”
The devices are so prevalent, both in the military and the retail world, that by 2017, the aerial cameras are expected to create more than 2,450 jobs and generate nearly $480 million for Georgia’s and South Carolina’s economy, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International reported.
The Federal Aviation Administration published a notice in June on its interpretation of the special rules for model aircraft outlined in the agency’s 2012 Modernization and Reform Act.
The guidance came after incidents involving the reckless use of model aircraft near airports, large crowds and even prisons.
Last week, The Associated Press reported that a crashed quadcopter carrying contraband, including marijuana, tobacco and cell phones, was found outside the fence of the maximum-security Lee Correctional Institution near Bishopville, S.C.
The most controversial case was Oct. 17, 2011, when a quadcopter was used near the University of Virginia to take pictures and video, according to a $10,000 citation issued against the device’s owner by the FAA. The agency found that a $130 quadcopter, which weighed four pounds and had a 56-inch wingspan, was flown in a tunnel with moving vehicles, and within 50 feet of numerous people and 100 feet of an active heliport.
Because the FAA had not issued an “enforceable regulatory rule” for such model aircraft, a judge dismissed the violation in March. The FAA said in its notice that compliance with these rules for model aircraft operators has been required since its Modernization and Reform act was signed Feb. 14, 2012, but that was voluntary.
Now, the notice stated the FAA may take enforcement action against model aircraft operators who operate their aircraft in a manner that “endangers the safety of the national airspace system.”
“We want people who fly model aircraft for recreation to enjoy their hobby – but to enjoy it safely,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news release.
Operating standards outlined in the notice include flying quad or octocopters only for hobby or recreational purposes, no higher than 400 feet and in an area a sufficient distance from populated areas, such as parks, schools, hospitals and churches. The FAA also explains that model aircraft operators flying within five miles of an airport must notify the facility’s air traffic control tower.
The FAA says it plans to work with law enforcement to generate awareness of the rules for model aircraft operators, so they can more effectively protect public safety.
“We have a mandate to protect the American people in the air and on the ground, and the public expects us to carry out that mission,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in the release.