Santa expected to deliver 1 million drones this Christmas
Regulators can't keep up with soaring popularity of drone technology among hobbyists and entrepreneurs
The Los Angeles Convention Center sounds like an apiary. The buzz and whine is the non-stop soundtrack of the International Drone Expo, the largest of its kind in the world.
On display are hundreds of drones from around the world. Some are as small as a business card; others are large enough to carry a person.
"You can see how stable it is just flying in the cage," says Chuck Remar as the drone he's controlling hovers in a large, white cage nearby.
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It's a Phantom 3, one of the more popular hobby drones, which is made by Chinese manufacturer DJI and sells for less than $600 US.
"[It] is really designed to have as the gift under the Christmas tree," said Remar, a salesman for DJI. "There's going to be a lot of drones out there at Christmas time."
According to projections by the Federal Aviation Administration, there might be as many as one million drones sold over the holidays. But the more popular drones become, the more problems they cause.
"Drones have been getting a bad name, and it's kind of a sad situation," says Stephen Gowdy, chief pilot at Gowdy Brothers Aerospace, a Minnesota company that advises companies and individuals on how to petition the FAA for exemptions to fly commercial drones.
Not long ago, the only people who had access to airspace were trained pilots. Now, any hobbyist with $30 can fly a machine as high as 10,000 feet.
"Individuals that just bought a new drone with their mom's credit card and they're out there having fun, they have no idea about Class B through G airspace that they may be operating in where other vehicles or aircraft are operating as well," Gowdy says.
On several occasions this summer, pilots fighting wildfires in California and B.C. were forced to land their aircraft because drones got too close. According to the FAA, airplane and helicopter pilots reported almost 240 close calls with drones last year in the U.S. By August of this year, that number had tripled.
"So, clearly, there's a trend here," said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
The problem is the sheer number of what Gregor calls "new entrants."
"And by that, I mean hobbyists," he said. "Many if not most of these people have little to no prior aviation experience."
That's why the FAA recently announced new rules governing drones. Operators will have to register drones as small as 227 grams on the FAA's website by mid-February or face fines of up to $27,500 US. Registration will cost $5 US and will have to be renewed every three years.
Gregor says the FAA doesn't plan to hit hobbyists with fines if they're unaware of the requirements because its priority is educating the public.
"As soon as they start flying, they are, in effect, a pilot," Gregor said. "And being a pilot comes with significant safety responsibility."
The FAA is also asking manufacturers to program the drones so they can't take off near airports and to include safety instructions in the packaging.
"So, when you get an unmanned aircraft and you open up the box, the safety information is staring right at you in the face," Gregor says. "The FAA can't do it alone."
The other problem bedeviling the FAA is the huge number of people who are applying for permits to use drones for commercial purposes. A typical example of such a drone is the Chinese-made M6A-Pro, a $13,000 US agricultural drone that can spray a 10-acre field in an hour and is about the size of a 42-inch television.
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"It is very popular at the moment in China," says Xu Ding of Beijing TT Aviation Technology Co., which makes the M6A-Pro.
"It is very fast. It can fly by itself. You just need [to] put the point on the map (the drone's GPS)."
If Ding wanted to operate the M6A-Pro in the U.S., he'd need a permit from the FAA. However, there's a significant backlog of permit applications. Fewer than one-third of the 9,000 applications submitted have been processed.
"It is overwhelming the FAA," said Gowdy.
Right now, the FAA has to approve each application on a case-by-case basis. Those rules are expected to change in 2016 in order to make it faster and easier to fly a commercial drone. And that's welcome news for Brian Terry, who worked as a technology commercialization officer with Memorial University in St. John's, N.L., before starting his own company.
"This is an early prototype," Terry says as he presses a button that turns a small spinning drone blade attached to a circuit board. He and his team are demonstrating a new type of drone motor invented at Memorial University at the L.A. expo.
"Its main claim to fame is speed," said Terry.
Realizing the potential for profit, Terry and his colleagues spun off their own company, Agile Sensor Technologies. Now, they're hoping to get noticed by a bigger American or Chinese firm, which is why they're in L.A.
"We figured there's a lot of drone action on the west coast," Terry said.
The growth of the drone sector and the elimination of barriers to entry mean more opportunities for small companies like Terry's to become international players.
"When you look at the aerial vehicle sector, which includes hobby drones all the way up to the big ones, I think the number that was floated was something like $6-billion market," said Terry.
Right now, Terry is just another CEO of a struggling start-up, but, he says, with the speed at which the market is growing, that could soon change.
"We've all got visions," Terry says and smiles, "but for now, we'd be happy to start generating sales revenue and go from there."