They come in all sizes. From scale-model airplanes to something to keep the family toddler from swallowing. Drones are remote-controlled airplanes and helicopters or sUAS (Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems) that do everything from police surveillance and agricultural surveys to capturing amazing aerial imagery and delighting crowds with aerobatic derring-do.
The most popular version today is the multi-rotor helicopter, which can be easily flown by amateurs who, unfortunately, have earned a reputation of ignoring flying safety and personal boundaries.
And that’s become a serious problem for this industry.
Perhaps the most common perception of freelancing drones can be found in the late Pete Liebengood’s novel, “Accidental Droning.” A story where a drone inadvertently captures the drowning murder of a wealthy woman in her backyard pool, committed by a snooping neighbor.
Yet, radio-controlled aircraft have been around for some time; the first RC contest was in 1937. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that this hobby became massively popular. Early versions were airplanes and gliders, but since a Chinese corporation, Shenzhen DJI Sciences and Technologies, better known as DGI, introduced its small multi-rotor drones, the popularity of these hovering objects has skyrocketed.
Rumor has it that Mike Conrardy was born with a pilot’s license in his hand. He got hooked on radio-controlled airplanes at 8-years-old and eventually found himself working at a hobby shop in Mountain View. By then he had also achieved a private pilot’s license for small aircraft. One day a man came into the shop with his son and expressed an interested in radio-controlled planes while seeking an instructor to show them the ropes. Conrardy was happy to volunteer and took the pair out for some test flights.
Turned out the father was Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison with his son, David. Ultimately, Conrardy would not only teach the two Ellisons how to fly scale-model airplanes, but he would train both how to pilot the full-scale version. Ellison hired Conrady to be his personal pilot, putting him through the training necessary for multiple-jet-engine flying.
San Jose Hobby Store
Flying Larry Ellison all over the world was a blast, but Conrardy got hooked on becoming an accomplished aerobatic performer as well. The years flew by and Conrardy started yearning for the good old radio-controlled, hobby shop flying days. So, he established California Hobbies in San Jose, balancing shop owner with corporate piloting.
Radio-controlled helicopters were becoming popular so he trained himself to fly them. Around the same time a friend gave him a small video camera for his birthday. Being an inventive fellow, Conrardy strapped the camera to an RC helicopter and started filming from the air. The notion that he could be standing on the ground seeing what he saw as a pilot thrilled him, so he designed and built a helicopter with six-foot rotors that was capable of carrying a professional video camera. He then approached producers of films and commercials and was soon shooting high-end commercials.
“Then DGI came out with a tiny little drone that could fit in the palm of your hand that could do pretty much everything we could do and maybe a little bit more without all the noise and danger of flying my helicopter,” he said.
Flying for Sport
Like Conrardy, Evan Turner was young when he started flying radio-controlled airplanes, starting with his dad at 6 years old. By the age of 11 he was entering competitions. A Tennessee native, Turner won his first national championship at 14 when he began racing drones. These small, five-inch multi-rotor spiders are capable of flying upwards of 100 miles per hour, achieving top speed in under one second and pulling as much as 15G’s around a turn.
First-Person-View Drone Racing is a competition category where pilots, wearing goggles that livestream the video feed, control camera-equipped drones. The feeling is like being inside an actual cockpit. The goal is to complete a complex race course ahead of the other pilots in the heat. Competitions are held in stadiums around the world.
The Drone Racing League is the global, professional drone racing property for elite pilots. Merging the digital with the real, DRL delivers visually thrilling races on networks, including NBC, NBCSN, Twitter, Fox Sports, Sky Sports, ProSieben and Weibo.
Turner, now 18-years-old, won the National Championship twice, in 2019 and 2020, and is the youngest DRL World Champion. Of the 80 heats Turner raced in 2020, he finished first in nearly 70% of them, resulting in a winning percentage of more than triple his nearest competitor.
Subsequently, he was invited to join the Drone Racing League, comprised of the 12 best pilots in the world, who compete across 16 levels of races shown on NBCSN and other cable channels. These pilots are professionals, salaried by the League.
Moreover, with partner Armando Gallegos, Turner has started his own company which makes drone parts. So, with racing, filming and his company, he is one busy teenager.
Rules of the Air
When Conrardry was flying radio-controlled aircraft as a young man, the government was not concerned with what was then a hobby industry.
“Back then anyone could build a RC airplane, go out and fly it without any problem,” said Conrardy, “but once drones popped up people started doing irresponsible things with them, like flying along the approach pattern of San Jose Airport, trying to get close to airliners taking off and landing or flying over crowds of people who had no idea what a drone was. There were no rules or responsibility.”
Enter the Federal Aviation Administration. After a flood of calls from concerned citizens over privacy issues and drones threatening both wildlife and full-scale aircraft, the agency decided that it was time to enact some rules and restrictions to this burgeoning industry.
Even Homeland Security has entered the fray—and sees risk without controls. As one article on the agency’s home page notes, the popularity of drones has grown as they become more affordable. “Their nefarious capabilities continue to increase, as well,” the story continues. “They can attain high speeds and move in three dimensions with the potential to carry dangerous payloads, smuggle contraband, and conduct illicit surveillance. The applications are endless, which creates a formidable challenge for our national security agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security.”
Conrardy thinks most fears are overblown.
“All of this drone hysteria, hype and excitement that worried people in the past has been overcome. The stigma of drone fear is not there anymore that they are mindless machines that are going to come into your backyard and come spying on you are gone. Chances are that one of every three people you know has a drone.”
Safe Skies for All
“The FAA involvement is a touchy subject as it affects the legality of what drone operators do and love,” Turner added. “The livelihood for many pilots like myself could be taken away, however, I understand from the FAA’s point of view what they have to do.”
Turner is involved with the FAA, participating in panels to discuss oversight of the industry and drone use. “We recently did a panel titled ‘Droning on After Dark’ where several of us represented our views and willingness to compromise and work with them. It also gave the FAA an insider look at the drone community.”
He walked away with a better understanding of what the agency is attempting, trying to create a “safety sky” in an increasingly crowded airspace that could contain drones delivering Amazon packages. Not to mention amateurs endangering aircraft and public safety with reckless flying.
“But, there’s a fine balance between regulation and ending our hobby as a whole,” Turner said. “I believe there is a way for the drone community to work with the FAA where we can still fly and keep the skies safe. That’s going to involve compromise.”
Danny Zemanek of Redwood Shores is a videographer who uses a drone when clients, such commercial real estate developers, seek low-level footage of their projects. The limitations set by the FAA for flying can cost him work.
“Flying along the coast is prohibited due to the many species living and nesting there,” he said. “Any populated area — and where in the Bay Area is there not a ‘populated area’ — is prohibited. Additionally, nowhere near an airport, a five-mile radius zone. Basically, there aren’t that many areas where you can legally fly a drone.” It puts a real crimp in Zemanek’s ability to operate this specialty tool. He explains that a drone operator can apply for permission from the FAA for a specific area that is restricted to the public at a time of day, but even that is limited and can take weeks to obtain.
That’s something Conrardy knows well. Once he was all set to fly and film in the Mojave Desert in air space used by military aircraft when the permission he’d received was yanked at the last minute. Conrardy was faced with an angry client or risk losing his pilot’s license.
He chose his license. Goodbye client.
But Conrardy foresees a time when drone cars will be able to take off vertically and fly instead of clogging up freeways—in much the same way local helicopter innovator Stanley Hiller Jr. envisioned back in the late 50’s when he drew up plans for a flying car. “They will be unmanned and will fly better than any pilot can. It’s paving the way for transportation because innovators in this field remember that toy drone sitting on their kid’s bedroom desk.”
Just as people today don’t bat an eye about getting into an “unmanned” elevator, Conrady thinks the public will come around to trusting their lives in an unmanned flying aircraft.
“One day it will be normal to travel in an electronic flying vehicle. It’s safer to take the pilot out of the equation,” he said.
In fact, that day may have arrived. The New York Times recently reported that “several companies say they are on the verge of being able to offer safe, cheap, clean electric aircraft that can help passengers travel distances between two and 150 miles without the need for a conventional runway. These companies are betting they can bring electric urban and regional air travel to the masses, and have developed new aircraft to compete for a slice of this nascent market within the next few years.”
Drone safety and limitations are still being studied and argued about. In the meantime, new and improved hobby models, many equipped with cameras, are continually cropping up. The tech industry has embraced the idea of fully automated personal aerial transportation and it appears toy drones have led the way.
Move over George Jetson.