Mounting a gun on a home-built quadcopter. Attaching Roman candles to a pricey DJI Inspire 1, then posting the explosive results on the internet. Flying camera-carrying drones around the scene of a devastating Southern California fire, hampering disaster-response helicopters (for which San Bernadino County, California, is now offering $75,000 for information to help track those pilots down). This summer has been dominated by the Drone Jerk, and I’m sick of it — and I’m worried these poorly-behaved specimens may ruin this fantastic hobby and promising industry for everyone else.
Why have drone jerks suddenly become so common? Availability is a factor: Drones have gone from a DIY tech reserved for the very nerdiest to a Christmas present available on Amazon, with prices dropping all the time. The tricky-to-fly R/C aircraft of the past have given way to the idiot-proof consumer drones of today, lulling newbie pilots into falsely believing they’re competent pilots. At the same time, the tight-knit community surrounding old school R/C aircraft — a community that used to provide mentorship and training for new pilots, and a social insurance policy against jerky behavior — has yet to coalesce around drones.
Finally, the sea of ever more technically impressive drone videos available on the internet has set off an arms race, as pilots compete to capture the most extreme footage and to rack up interesting “firsts” — with potential danger to both the UAV and unassuming bystanders coming in a distinct second to the possibility of viral video glory.
— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) July 17, 2015
Humanitarian UAV Network Founder Patrick Meier agrees this strain of bad drone behavior is on the rise, recalling how inexperienced UAV teams descended on Nepal after the April 2015 earthquake, without organizing their filming and search and rescue efforts with local authorities or major aid groups.
Nepalese authorities, claiming concern over unauthorized information leaking to the public, soon decided to ban drone flight without explicit prior permission from its Civilian Aviation Authority. “It blows my mind that regulations are preventing us professionals from using UAVs for legit humanitarian efforts during disasters but idiot men who fly UAVs near airports walk away unscathed,” Meier says.
While the US still lacks final rules on UAV flight, they’re expected to be released by the FAA in 2016. The “Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” known as the NPRM, was first released in February and made many optimistic, with reasonable restrictions on flight that leave room for both hobbyists and commercial pilots to operate.
But the rules aren’t final: The comment period ended in April, and there’s plenty of time for lawmakers to change their minds. In that light, the summer’s rash of drones behaving badly should be scaring all of us. It’s time we in the drone community — from hobbyists to industry — spent less time arguing on the internet, and more time working together to stop “drone jerks” from dominating headlines.
Some organizations are already fighting back against drone jerks. The Know Before You Fly educational campaign, a collaboration between the FAA and various UAV organizations, offers information on safe drone flight to new pilots — though I wish the group would do more.
A number of ready-to-fly drone manufacturers have begun packaging basic safety and regulation information with their UAVs, including links to the Know Before You Fly website, a practice that should become an absolute industry standard. DJI, as most of us know, has begun shipping its drones with built-in “no fly zone” barriers, which restrict flight near airports and other sensitive areas, while Airmap has released a map and an app that display no fly zones in a simple format.
These efforts by industry and private companies are welcome, but they’re not going to be enough: Individual hobbyists and drone pilots should take responsibility for reigning in drone jerks as well. While the irresponsible and the just plain dense will always be among us, many newbie pilots are reachable: They’re simply ignorant of the rules and unaware of potential repercussions.
If you see someone acting like a jerk with a drone, don’t ignore them: Call them out. Explain why what they’re doing is unsafe, illegal, or quite possibly both. Don’t share or click on videos portraying dangerous behavior. Kick them out of your hobby groups and online forums, and calmly explain why you’re doing it.
It’s also incumbent upon us to educate people before they buy a drone. If you know someone mulling over a purchase or a first-time build, take the time to give them a common-sense rundown of what good piloting behavior looks like.
Thanks to these so-called “drone jerks,” the civilian drone community is developing an image problem, and this time, it can’t be blamed on the malevolent nature of U.S. military drones. It’s time that we as a community began working to regulate ourselves and to stop the idiots among us ourselves, before regulators come in to do it for us, in ways we’re probably not going to like.