A few weeks ago, my wife, two sons, and I got out of the city and visited my in-laws. I brought along my DJI Phantom drone, the Vision 2 model. My older son is nearly two, and he loves to watch it fly, although he sometimes has to hide behind my legs in fear when it comes close during a landing.
I was excited because my in-laws have a spacious suburban backyard. It’s roughly half an acre, protected on three sides by high walls of trees. I’m used to flying in my tiny Brooklyn backyard and in public parks where I need to keep an eye out for other people, dogs, and stray kites.
I flew the Phantom a couple of times the first day without incident. There was a lot of wind, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking it above 100 feet. I’ve flown the unit much higher than that before, but in much nicer weather. I was also having some trouble with the GPS lock. The light would go green after takeoff, and the GPS would help me stabilize against the wind for the most part, but occasionally it cut out, and the lights would blink red for 10 or 20 seconds, before finding the signal again.
I didn’t think much about the GPS. I have flown the Phantom without it before, while shooting video indoors. I didn’t have any plans to fly it far away or out of my line of sight. I chalked it up to the location, which also happens to be a total dead zone for cell service.
The next day I took the Phantom out in the middle of the afternoon. I was about 50 feet off the ground, doing some speed runs to the tree line and back. At some point the GPS signal must have dropped again, because the light switched from green to red. I brought the unit to a halt, hovering it in front of me.
A strong gust of wind came through and suddenly the Phantom was drifting quickly towards my in-laws' house. Without GPS, the unit wasn’t correcting for this at all, and I didn’t want to break any windows. So I tried to correct hard back against the wind, but the breeze had also rotated the unit, and my orientation was off. Instead of fighting the wind, I actually doubled down, accelerating the unit over the house and out towards the road in front.
At this point I panicked. I couldn’t see the drone and wasn’t sure how to recover. So I decided the best thing to do was go to ground. I killed the rotors and listened with horror to the sound of my Phantom impacting into concrete. I think all this happened in less than two or three seconds.
I came running around to the front of the house and found a woman on a bike, stopped by the side of the road. On the back was a small child in a bike seat. Both were wearing helmets. My Phantom was strewn across the road in several pieces.
It was hard to tell how far in front of the drone they had been when it came down, but they were clearly shocked. A few seconds earlier, a few feet to the other side, and it could easily have come down on them instead. There is no way to say exactly what would have happened, but a heavy object falling out of the sky, striking someone in the head, at which point they crash their bike, certainly could have ended in serious injury or worse.
A few feet to the left, and who knows
"I’m so sorry!" I repeated profusely, as I gathered up the pieces of my drone. The woman and her child just sort of stared in shock, as if they had seen a UFO. They didn’t respond to my repeated apologies, and eventually she simply turned and biked away.
I went back into the house, shaken and upset. I felt ashamed of my poor piloting, my poor decision making, and a mixture of guilt and fear at the near accident. I resolved then and there never to fly the drone anywhere even close to other people and without a GPS lock. This thing is not a toy, I reminded myself; it’s an aircraft.
The thing is, there are basically zero regulations in the U.S. preventing what I did from happening again. There is no age requirement or learner's permit necessary to purchase a drone. There are some basic rules in place from the FAA that ban hobbyists from flying over densely populated areas or close to airports, but aside from that, if you stay under 400 feet, you’re good to go.
When it comes to commercial drone flights, on the other hand, the FAA has made them completely illegal in the US. It’s taken years to develop new rules for companies, during which time other countries have forged ahead. And now it’s saying it will miss the deadline set by Congress to get commercial drones flying over American skies in 2015.
This is completely backward. It didn’t really hit me until my own crash, but the FAA is actually focusing its regulation on the wrong group. Companies typically need to carry liability insurance on the machinery they operate. A bad crash would be terrible for a brand, something that will make them more conservative about flights. The people with the least to lose are the casual hobbyist like me.
The FAA is in a terrible position right now. The reality of what drones can do, and how many people are doing it, has already outrun the rules in place. People are using them, legally but dangerously, and companies are using them, often illegally. The FAA keeps running in circles because announcing a concrete, new system would make it clear just how much crazy and illegal stuff is going on every day.
I don’t really know the best solution for this issue. Representatives from DJI told me recently that they program the GPS in their drones to keep the units from flying too close to airports. Perhaps that GPS lockdown could be expanded to a much wider area, preventing drones from flying over cities as well. If a drone doesn’t have GPS signal when flying, like what happened to me, perhaps the drone should automatically land, or come down to a much lower height.
People will no doubt hack their way around any of these restrictions, but that should be outlawed, just as modifying a car past a certain point means it's no longer street-legal. And for powerful drones, there should be a bare minimum of required safety instruction before you start flying the thing.
I am the last person in the world who wants to stand in the way of innovation and people’s free access to amazing technology. I don’t think we need restrictive age requirements or a driver’s license for all drones, but I know firsthand, flying drones over the last year, that it's a complete Wild West out there. I have seen multiple people fly units hundreds of feet above crowded city streets, bordering on the distance where it was out of their line of sight. I’ve said to myself on more than one occasion, "Why isn’t this illegal?"
At some point, there will be a bad accident, as these things become more popular, more powerful, and ever cheaper. If that happens before effective laws are in place, there would be a media frenzy, perhaps followed by bad, knee-jerk legislation. There was some good news last week, when the head of the FAA said he hopes the new rules will be released before the end of this year. The FAA needs to act now, and if they don’t, Congress needs to force their hand or step in and craft new laws. I’m in love with the booming industry for consumer drone technology, which is why I’m so passionate about protecting it from itself.
Photos by Sean O'Kane