One of the hottest gifts this holiday season comes with a disclaimer: It may soon have to be registered with the federal government.
Drones, those flying, buzzing copters with cameras, were first widely used by the military before spreading to farming and real estate and becoming playthings for rich techies. Now, they’re becoming a toy for the masses, with lower-priced versions popping up at the nation’s biggest stores.
“We think it’s all going to be about drones and Star Wars” this holiday season, said Julie Guggemos, a Target senior vice president.
So does the Federal Aviation Administration, which is moving quickly to regulate their use. One reason: Reports by airplane pilots of drones flying too close to them have more than doubled this year.
An FAA task force will meet for the first time this week to devise a system to register recreational drones. Its members include Best Buy, the Richfield-based electronics retailer that is likely to be one of the highest-volume sellers of drones. The agency wants the group to provide recommendations by Nov. 20 — a week before Black Friday.
In recent weeks, Best Buy has started giving its employees e-learning courses to get well-versed in the safety regulations for recreational drones, such as that they should not be flown above 400 feet and not come within 5 miles of an airport.
“We want people, once they have them, to use them safely and responsibly,” said Jeff Haydock, a Best Buy spokesman.
In late September, Best Buy added language on receipts and on each drone product page on its website that reminds customers to “Fly Responsibly.” Bestbuy.com also notes that drones may soon be regulated and provides links to the FAA and other websites for more information about rules and safety guidelines. It will also soon place “Know Before You Fly” brochures in its stores.
Best Buy sells about 30 different drones on its website and about a dozen models in its stores. In recent weeks, it also has been adding splashy store displays to showcase some of the newest models, such as the DJI Phantom 3, 3DR Solo and Yuneec Typhoon, which start around $1,000.
The Consumer Electronics Association expects about 700,000 drones to be sold this year nationwide, a 63 percent increase from 2014.
In October, Target expanded its assortment of drones to 20 models in stores and a larger selection online. The Minneapolis-based retailer sells everything from basic toy versions that start at $30 to sophisticated models at $1,000.
Chief executive Brian Cornell said Target is paying close attention to the regulatory landscape but is letting its vendors take the lead in making sure the products adhere to federal standards.
“Registration will help make sure that operators know the rules and remain accountable to the public for flying their unmanned aircraft responsibly,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “When they don’t fly safely, they’ll know there will be consequences.”
In addition to Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Amazon will have representatives on the FAA’s 25-person task force, which will meet in Washington on Tuesday. The FAA says it wants the registration system not to be too burdensome, with toy drones exempt, but the task force will have to figure out the exact parameters.
“The devil is always in the details,” said Douglas Johnson, a task force member and vice president of technology policy for the Consumer Electronics Association. “This is an extraordinary mandate for our industry and we’re of course taking it very seriously.”
He noted that manufacturers have also been adding more safety-related messages in their marketing and packaging.
“The important thing is to come up with a solution here that doesn’t adversely impact the market or consumers — or make the U.S. less competitive in terms of this new exciting technology,” he said.
Industry experts don’t expect regulation to stymie the growing enthusiasm for recreational drones.
“It may put a little bit of doubt in the mind of consumers, but I don’t think it’s enough to dampen the demand for the product,” said Ben Arnold, a consumer technology analyst for the NPD Group. “It’s a very compelling product and there’s intense demand.”
He added that drones will likely be the biggest new category for sales in consumer electronics this holiday season. Other strong sellers are expected to be headphones, speakers, 4K TVs and wearables.
Drones are also a standout entry in the toy industry and should ring up significant sales this year, said Chris Byrne, content director at TTM, a leading toy review site.
“The toy industry always reflects what’s going on in the wider culture,” he said. “But most of these [toy] drones are not going further than maybe 150 feet. They are not going to impede a 767 going overhead.”
Toys ‘R’ Us began carrying toy drones about a year ago and saw them perform “extremely well,” said Kathleen Waugh, a company spokeswoman. She added that most of the drones it carries fly only up to 200 feet.
“It is our understanding that the concern is largely for drones that fly above 400 feet,” she wrote in an e-mail. “That said, we continue to work closely with manufacturers and the industry to ensure we comply with any and all regulations applicable to toy drones.’’
Bill Pritchett, educational director for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, said the advent of drones has divided the hobby group. Some members who fly traditional model airplanes worry that the relative ease of operating recreational drones has made it too accessible to people who might abuse the technology. Model airplanes, by comparison, are harder to learn to control.
“One thing about the multi-rotors [drones] is they are extremely easy to fly,” Pritchett said. “While that’s a wonderful thing, that’s always one of our concerns. You can take it right out of the box and open it and take it off in the driveway if you want.”
His group would prefer education over regulation of the devices. “They are a lot of fun,” he said. “You can get video that is just breathtaking. But there’s a responsible way to do it.”