CAPITAL REGION -- Do you hear what I hear, buzzing through the sky?
Drones are forecast to be a hot holiday gift again this Christmas. The Consumer Technology Association expects 3.4 million of them to be purchased in the United States, 40 percent more than in 2016. Nearly half that total -- 1.6 million -- will be bought during the holiday season, the CTA predicted. That's a 31 percent increase over the 2016 holiday season.
Doorbuster sales are already underway:
- Drone industry leader DJI is offering up to $150 off certain products via its website through Nov. 27.
- Best Buy will discount GoPro Karma and Yuneec drones by $200 to $300.
- Target will knock $100 off the price of a DJI Spark.
- Walmart is discounting the Yuneec Breeze 4K.
Drones being sold to the public -- unmanned aircraft systems is their official name -- range from toys costing well under $100 to larger, sophisticated devices aimed at commercial users and costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Weight is a more important dividing line than cost or features, as drones weighing less than 250 grams don’t have to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. (CTA expects 2 million of the 3.4 million drones sold in the United States this year to weigh less than 250 grams.)
The proliferation of drones brings an increase in potential collisions. Pilots of manned aircraft reported 1,839 sightings of unmanned aircraft in 2016 and 2,023 so far in 2017. Often these are in restricted airspace, such as near airports, where drone operation is sharply restricted.
Drones have not been a common sight near Albany International Airport, spokesman Doug Myers said, but a couple were spotted this summer.
A pilot on final approach to Runway 1 saw a drone operating around his altitude near the Marriott Hotel on Wolf Road on July 29, and a drone was spotted about 300 feet above the ground south of the airport by an approaching pilot on Aug. 5.
The Albany County Sheriff’s Office was notified in each instance.
Spokesmen for two area police agencies -- the Schenectady Police Department and New York State Police Troop G -- say they’ve seen no indication of widespread misuse of drones, such as for snooping or privacy invasion.
“That’s not to say a trooper hasn’t responded to a complaint,” Troop G spokesman Mark Cepiel said.
However, he was not aware of any drone-related arrests, aside from one notable case: The arrest of self-appointed police activist/watchdog Adam Rupeka, who flew a drone over the state Capitol -- crashing the device into its roof, in 2015.
Rupeka also conducted drone sorties over a state prison and Troop G headquarters before his 2016 death in Mexico of an apparent suicide and/or drug overdose.
With the boost in drone usage comes an increase in the opportunities for drone misuse.
The FAA is working with partners in the industry to educate consumers about safe and legal operation.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulates drones and their operation.
- Drones weighing more than 250 grams must be registered with the FAA. The registered total stands at 943,872, the bulk of them (842,063) for hobby use.
- The FAA projects the hobbyist drone fleet will total 2.69 million to 4.15 million by 2020, and the commercial fleet will total 207,000 to 1.13 million.
- The most common use of commercial drones is aerial photography, followed by real estate, construction, agriculture, emergency management and insurance.
- FAA safety guidelines include flying at altitudes of 400 feet or below; keeping clear of obstacles; not flying under the influence of drugs or alcohol; keeping the drone in sight and not flying over crowds.
- Most casual drone users will fall under the FAA's model aircraft rules and will not need a license. They must: fly only for hobby or recreation; follow community-based safety guidelines; give way to other aircraft and not interfere with them; and give airport operators prior notice when planning to fly within 5 miles of the airport.
- Drone activity near airports is restricted. Hobbyists must notify the control tower if they’ll be flying within 5 miles of the airport and are encouraged to keep their drones within 400 feet of ground level. Licensed commercial operators are required to ask the air traffic controller for permission to fly in controlled airspace and must stay no more than 400 feet above the tallest structure.
- Restrictions also pertain to drone use over wildfire firefighting, stadiums, certain sporting events, much of the District of Columbia and military-defended airspace.