Remote-controlled drones were among most popular toys last year.
But aviation experts in South Jersey said with much fun comes much responsibility.
As the Federal Aviation Administration comes up with rules for commercial drones, hobbyists said newcomers to the sport should know the rules before they take to the skies with their unboxed toys.
“I’m afraid of the people who are irresponsible,” said Mark Senior, of Egg Harbor Township, who has been flying remote-controlled aircraft for 20 years.
He belongs to the Wireless Aircraft Sport Pilots of Cape May County, which flies a variety of remote-controlled aircraft.
“More than 1 million of these things were sold last year. Out of that million, a lot of people will crash them and that will be the end of that,” he said.
Senior recommends that beginners join an organized club to get advice on where they can fly and tips on flying the little copters, which typically need minor adjustments for the most reliable flight.
“If you bring a new aircraft to the club field, they do a safety check to make sure it’s safe,” he said.
Drones like the popular four-rotor quadcopter were among Amazon.com’s most-given toys of the year in 2014.
Starting at just $59, these easy-to-fly aircraft also were the most popular item last Christmas at Hobbies R Us in Millville, which sells five different types of quadcopters along with traditional remote-controlled planes, boats, cars and helicopters.
Owner Vivian Jerrell said drones have reinvigorated the remote-controlled flying industry. They are popular with children and adults alike, she said.
“I see new customers come in all the time,” she said. “They’re very popular because they’re easy to fly. The price has a lot to do with it.”
Drones have become more affordable in recent years. And the micro-technology is amazing, she said. One customer showed her the high-definition video he shot over the woods in Cumberland County.
“It was really beautiful,” she said. “It looked like it was shot by a professional.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is still coming up with rules for commercial drones. But hobbyists, too, have to abide by the agency’s rules.
Chief among them are rules preventing people from flying drones higher than 400 feet or closer than 5 miles to an airport without the airport’s permission.
The U.S. Department of the Interior bans the flying of drones in national parks and reserves. And professional sports leagues and colleges ban flights over stadiums.
The FAA also discourages flying drones over vehicles, power plants, water-treatment centers, jails and prisons or other government buildings. And no drone should take images of unknowing people when there is an expectation of privacy.
The FAA said it is getting about 40 reports per month of pilots observing drones in restricted airspace.
This includes an account just outside at Teterboro Airport last year where a corporate jet pilot told the FAA of a drone that “passed under our right wing approximately 50 feet below” while the plane was attempting to land.
“It did not allow time to take evasive action,” the pilot reported.
A commercial pilot on approach to Newark International Airport saw three drones flying 500 to 1,000 feet below the plane. The pilot said the drones activated the plane’s electronic Traffic Collision Avoidance System.
Hobbyists such as Lee Morey, of Tuckerton, said they are concerned a few bad examples could lead to a crackdown on hobbyists. The FAA does not quibble when it comes to asserting its authority over drones — toys or no.
“Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft — manned or unmanned — in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval,” the agency said.
Morey flies remote-controlled aircraft as part of a club in Ocean County.
“The FAA is coming down pretty hard on the whole model-aviation community,” he said.
“I love it. I’ve been flying for 20 years,” he said. “I want everyone to be able to enjoy the hobby. It’s a great family hobby.”
Gas-powered model airplanes used to be both expensive and complicated to assemble and fly. This created a small niche of enthusiasts that has been overtaken in recent years by novices who can fly cheap and easy-to-operate quadcopters practically out of the box using high-tech rechargeable batteries.
“My first model airplanes were made of balsa,” Senior said. “They took weeks to make from a set of plans. There’s no greater thrill than flying something you built from nothing.”
Senior said he still assembles and glues together a “project plane” from scratch every year. But he is excited to fly his most recent purchase, a quadcopter the size of a coffee-cup saucer that shoots high-definition video.
And Morey said the latest drones are getting more advanced with each version. For some the pilot wears goggles with a live feed of the aircraft’s camera. These require another person to serve as a spotter, he said. And he has one that uses an internal guidance system that will let the quadcopter hover in place at precise coordinates. Others let pilots set automatic waypoints.
“Everybody hears ‘drone’ and associates it with what the military is using. For the most part, 90 percent of what’s out there and even some of the stuff the news media has reported on are toys. That’s really what they are,” Morey said.
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