Just two Christmases ago, drones were the gotta-have item on every kid’s wish list — and some adult lists too. Prices ranged from around $25 to more than $11,000 on Amazon.com. It’s still possible to get a drone for $25 or even less. It is also possible to spend more than $11,000 — a lot more.
The most expensive drone we found at the Amazon store costs $89,999. The Elistair Orion Commercial Drone is made by a French company and sold on Amazon by its American distributor JT Drones. The Orion can fly either tethered or untethered and is designed for “semi-persistent” aerial surveillance and telecommunications. That’s not all.
An Elistair drone provided CNN TV coverage and security for this year’s Super Bowl game. The CNN drone was tethered to the roof of CNN’s headquarters building in Atlanta and flew at a height of 45 meters (about 150 feet) above the rooftop to relay aerial imagery of the game.
Another drone provided security surveillance for the game. In a press release, Elistair crowed a bit:
NFL security officials expressed their interest in using this solution as often as possible because of its ability to follow a subject continuously without having to pass from a fixed camera to another and risking to lose the subject from the field.
CEO Guilhem de Marliave added, “[O]ur tethered drones have again been proven as a safe surveillance capability for large event security and broadcast applications.”
The Orion drone includes even more capabilities than the drones used at the Super Bowl. It can detect human activity at a distance of up to 10 kilometers (more than six miles) and includes a 30X-day vision and 4X-night vision zoom. It also incorporates electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors that were originally developed for military battlefield use. When tethered to the ground, the drone can fly continuously for long periods, even in poor weather conditions.
There would be around 2 million drones of all kinds, from the cheapest to the most expensive, in the United States at the end of 2018, according to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimate. By 2022, the FAA anticipates that 2.4 million drones will be registered, and more than 450,000 of those will be commercial grade devices that cost more than $10,000 apiece.
A 2017 FAA review of how commercial drones are currently used shows that nearly half (48%) are used for aerial imaging, including real estate photos, while more than a quarter (28%) are used for industrial and utility applications and 17% are used in agriculture. Agency rules require that drones used for nighttime operations receive a waiver, and 86% of all waivers granted are intended for nighttime use.
Perhaps the most pressing problem still to be worked out regarding drones is how to get users to use them safely. A drone sighting at London’s Gatwick forced the airport to shut down during the holiday travel season, and another sighting at Heathrow a few weeks later delayed departures for about an hour. Both incidents brought chaos to the U.K.’s air traffic control system and cost EasyJet airlines some £10 million in customer welfare costs and £5 million in lost revenues when travelers canceled their flights.
Besides legal surveillance — PG&E, for example, used drones to locate equipment that may have caused last year’s deadly Camp Fire — a relatively inexpensive drone equipped with a camera could be used by someone (your neighbors, your ex-spouse) to spy on you. Because drones can fly at up to 60 mph, an inexperienced pilot can lose control of the device and cause injuries to people. Drones can be loaded with cans of spray paint and used to damage property and, although nothing like this has been recorded yet, a drone could be weaponized.
It’s unlikely that a drone enthusiast will buy a $90,000 drone from Amazon when a far cheaper model can do many of the same things. The FAA moved quickly in 2016 and 2017 to control drone use around airports. Do we need similar laws to protect personal privacy and safety from harm by drones? How will such laws be enforced? Lots of questions, not so many answers.