Tony Fernando lifted a cherry-red drone about the size of his palm to demonstrate its wiliness. Surprisingly lightweight, its propellers were slight, even delicate.
As the drone point person for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), Fernando has encountered and worked with all sorts of drones, some tiny, others strapping. More drones are likely coming to Minnesota’s skies — they are expected to be a popular gift once again this holiday season.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) predicts some 1.5 million drones will be sold during the final three months of the year, an increase of 8 percent over 2017. Once the provenance of hobby shops and basement tinkerers, drones are now available at big-box retailers such as Best Buy, Target and Kohl’s.
“They’re here to stay,” said Steve Koenig, CTA’s vice president of market research. “I think they will remain one of those perennial emerging technology gifts that’s interesting, unusual and maybe unexpected.”
That ubiquitousness poses both a challenge and an opportunity for MnDOT, which doesn’t regulate drones when used for recreational purposes. Commercial, government and nonprofit drone users must register with the state; so far, some 691 have done so.
The department tries to educate the public about how to safely operate drones, whether they’re used for commercial or industrial purposes, or by hobbyists who see drone play as recreation.
“It’s not just a toy that you take out of the box and fly,” said Rick Braunig, manager of Aviation Safety and Enforcement for MnDOT’s Office of Aeronautics. “A surprising number of people get their [drone] out of the box on Christmas Day, start it up and it takes off over the horizon and they never see it again.”
Recreational users must register drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), follow airspace restrictions and keep them within sight while flying. Other state and local laws may apply — MnDOT keeps a list of cities and parks that have drone restrictions, including the University of Minnesota, Anoka and Dakota counties and the Three Rivers Park District.
Drone safety rules
From a regulatory standpoint, drones are considered aircraft. They can be dangerous if they end up in inappropriate, even illegal, places.
“Jet engines are fragile,” said Fernando, MnDOT’s program administrator for unmanned aircraft systems, as he displayed his seemingly harmless crimson drone. “This can do some very serious damage.”
So far this year, 12 incidents involving drones in commercial airspace have been reported to the FAA, most of them within the vicinity of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. In June, for example, the pilot of an Embraer commercial jet reported a “quadcopter” drone hovering 100 feet away at 4,500 feet as the aircraft descended to land at MSP. In another incident, a drone was seen hovering between two of MSP’s runways.
MnDOT officials say joining a club for drone enthusiasts is one of the best ways for people to learn more about the aircraft, as well as the regulations that govern them. This community, now small but fervent, appears to be growing.
A self-professed “aviation nerd,” Aaron Sykes co-founded the Minnesota Autonomous Vehicle (MAV) Meetup five years ago. “My buddy and I were building [drones] and crashing them in the basement and we thought, ‘We can’t be the only people around who like to do this.’ ”
They weren’t. The MAV Meetup now has 957 members, making it one of the biggest drone groups in the nation. It sponsors educational sessions and fly days and engages in community outreach. “In the past five years, it’s gone from super eggheads to everybody,” Sykes said.
The appeal of drones for hobbyists is tied “to that miracle of flight,” Sykes added. “As Leonardo da Vinci said, ‘Once you’ve tasted the miracle of flight, you’ll always walk with your eyes turned skyward.’ I think that speaks to people in a super real way.”
Learning to fly
A report last year from the Pew Research Center found 8 percent of Americans own a drone, and nearly 60 percent said they’ve seen one in action.
From a financial standpoint, the market for recreational, commercial and government drones is expected to top the $12 billion mark by 2021, according to research firm BI Intelligence. The biggest growth driver: consumer drones.
A local business, Hydra FPV, was founded a little over a year ago, sponsoring drone races at local brewpubs, racetracks and outdoor spaces. The company built a platform and operating system that makes it easier to race. The events are livestreamed, too.
“We’re really interested in growing the sport and getting more people flying,” said Marty Wetherall, Hydra FPV’s CEO and co-founder.
He said there’s a broader societal benefit to recreational drones — inspiring young people to get involved with aviation and engineering. A drone flight school event for kids will be held Dec. 29 at the Works Museum in Bloomington.
As Sykes noted, drones “allow people to use technology to interact with their environment in a really novel, unique way. I mean their actual environment, not some augmented reality like a video game.”
He added, “It gets kids off the couch.”