FROM SCIENCE-FICTION fodder to hot-button political-military topic, the evolution of drones over the past several years has been both fascinating and fast—and here in Arkansas, no one knows this better than Robert Davis of aerial video production company Arkansas Aerials.
“Five years ago, there was me and one other guy in the state doing it, and we were flying our own custom systems,” Robert says. “Now you can buy one at Walmart.”
Really, the fervor surrounding drones isn’t all that surprising: They’re fun, they’re futuristic and they can provide us with a perspective not usually available to humans with such ease. But if you’re thinking about taking flight, there are a few things you need to know about recreational drone use. For that, we turned to Robert for tips on how to straighten up and fly right.
“You could go out and buy, say, the DJI Mavic or something if you’ve got a thousand dollars to throw down [for] a small helicopter,” Robert says. “But a $100 to $200 helicopter from Walmart or the local hobby shop is going to be a good start because it’s going to be small enough that you can crash it a couple of times, you’re not going to injure yourself and it’s still going to fly.”
Register your drone.
The law on drone registration has changed a handful of times over the past couple of years, but as of this writing, all drones must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. As long as you’re not a commercial drone pilot, you can register your drone as a hobbyist under a special model aircraft designation, which requires the aircraft to weigh between .55 and 55 pounds and be labeled with a registration number. Registration can be done via the FAA’s website for a fee of $5, covering all your aircraft for a period of three years. For the record, that’s practically nothing compared to the potential civil penalty of up to $27,500 or a criminal fine of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years if you fail to register your drone. In most cases, though, the FAA will attempt to educate offenders rather than prosecute them.
Follow the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules.
You can find a full list of the FAA’s regulations regarding drones on their website (faa.gov/uas), but Robert says the three most important things to remember are as follows: Fly below 400 feet, always keep your aircraft in your line of sight, and never fly over people or near buildings.
Practice makes perfect.
“You want to be able to control the system, so the best way to practice is to just take it off into the air a couple of feet up and try to hold it in an imaginary square right there in front of you,” Robert says. “Don’t try to fly it around until you’re comfortable that, if the wind blows, you can still keep that helicopter right there in that square.
Know before you fly.
In addition to the basic FAA restrictions on where you can and can’t fly, there are a few other areas you need to stay away from, including airports, hospitals and emergency-response efforts. You’ll probably want to avoid flying in residential areas as well, lest you inadvertently violate Arkansas’ voyeurism law. Make it easy on yourself, and download the FAA’s official B4UFLY app, which uses your GPS location to provide real-time information about airspace restrictions and other flying requirements.
Join the club.
Robert joined the Arkansas Sky Tigers in Maumelle when he first started flying remote-controlled model planes, back before drones came along. “It’s a very safe, very controlled place to learn and have fun with your aircraft, and you’ll meet a bunch of people,” he says. “The neat thing about this hobby is that it encompasses all walks of life.” Visit the Academy of Model Aeronautics website (modelaeronautics.com) for a directory of clubs in your area.
When it comes to buying a drone, the sky’s the limit … Well, the sky and your wallet
Promark Warrior Drone P70-CW |$99
Robert suggests spending at least $100 on your first drone, as it will likely be large enough to fly outside in normal wind conditions. The Promark Warrior is a great place to start, he says—with auto takeoff and landing, a 576-pixel camera and a companion smartphone app, the Warrior has everything you need as a beginner. But you’ll probably want to graduate before too long, as the battery only allows for about 12 minutes of flight time.
DJI Spark | $399
“If you want to enter the more precision-controlled and semi-pro camera arena, users should look to the DJI product line found at most major retailers,” Robert says. “If the budget is tight I would recommend the DJI Spark.” It should be noted that the Spark doesn’t come with a remote, but is instead controlled via your smartphone or even hand gestures, though a remote can be purchased separately if you want a bit more piloting precision.
Drone Kits | $100 to $3,500+
Brave enough to DIY? You’re going to wind up saving probably 20 to 30 percent, Robert says. Plus, you won’t have to concern yourself as much with the proprietary repair restrictions of more professional drone lines. Robert suggests visiting hobby sites like hobbyking.com and hobbytownUSA.com for a variety of kits ranging from RTF (Ready to Fly), which come pretty much assembled in the box, to ARF (Almost Ready to Fly), which will require a bit more building and possibly some additional purchases. “I would recommend looking at the $400-price-range kits that match your technical-construction comfort level,” Robert says. “You’ll wind up with a reliable copter you’ll have intimate construction knowledge of for easy fixing during a mishap.”