Monday, August 24, 2015

Droning On and On

When I was a kid, one of the coolest things anyone could get was a free-flying, radio controlled (RC) airplane. No one I knew had one, but I recall one of my friends was building a model airplane (one of those made out of a forest of balsa wood, covered in tissue paper) that he was hoping to outfit with an engine and controls. I don't recall if he ever finished it or not; if he did, I was not around for the flight, because I'm sure I would have remembered that.

On the way to the beach we used to go to was a town park. Almost any time you drove past that park you would see RC planes flying around over the treetops from the parkway. There was a club of some kind that met down there, or maybe that was just the only place you could find sufficient open space to actually fly the things.

You never saw those things flying around in the neighborhood. You couldn't fly those things around the neighborhood. While the streets we lived on had plenty of room for take-off and landing, the big trees, telephone poles and electrical wires overhead were a serious obstacle. The big park was wide open, so you didn't have to worry about that. But even if someone had been making an RC helicopter (and I don't remember seeing any of those back then; the closest we got to that was this), I don't think we would have been allowed to fly them around. You see, those airplanes, they were noisy. Imagine a team of landscapers arriving next door at 6 in the morning. Now imagine them flying back and forth over your house. Common sense of the day was that you didn't disturb the neighbors like that. If we had, the neighbors would have gone to our parents to complain, and I think it would have been an easy decision for parents to make: keep the peace in the neighborhood. Fly the planes in the county park.

Fast forward forty (!) years. Now we have drones, which are glorified RC helicopters. They take off and land vertically, so no need to try to find a gap in the ever-increasing traffic on suburban streets. They're noisy, but not as noisy as those RC planes. And they're relatively cheap--I just found a model available for $80. And they can be equipped with nifty little cameras, which means everyone and their uncle in the YouTube generation has yet another means of striking gold with a viral video.

Is anyone restricting these things right now? Last month, a Kentucky man was arrested after using his shotgun to blow a drone out of the sky over his backyard. He says it was hovering over the yard where his 16-year-old daughter was sunbathing. Last week, I read a story in the Washington Times that stated pilots have reported nearly 700 instances of close encounters with drones. Earlier in the year, a drone was used to drop contraband in a prison yard. And finally, there's this video, which shows people largely harassing animals with drones.

As kids in the time and place I grew up in, I believe we never would have gotten away with the kind of crap . The first time a neighbor came to our parents and complained about us hovering the drone over their house, outside their bathroom window, or buzzing their pool, that would have been it. We would have lost our drone privileges. And probably been grounded, AND had to go and apologize directly to the person or people offended. In many cases, however, these are adults who are flying--and abusing--these things, and the sense of entitlement trumps and respect at all for the people or animals around.

Drone technology allows us to do some great things. Last month, I saw a presentation in which a drone was used by a grad student at a local university to make maps, and to monitor things like stream bank erosion and sedimentation in a lake. There are a lot of good things they can do. They can also be used for fun, but we've got to show more sense in doing so, because there's also a real potential that someone's going to get seriously hurt.

Have you had any close encounters with drones?


  1. No close encounters for me. I don't think I've ever seen a drone flying about. The man next door used to fly is RC plane, though. In the back yard (it's way open--no fences or trees). I guess our back door neighbor (at the time), didn't mind him doing it.

  2. I've been fortunate and only experienced the good part of drones, but the misuse needs to be addressed with sharp consequences. I'm sorry. Peeping Tom drones are not acceptable.

    And people want flying cars?

  3. My brother used to build and fly RC planes off the rolling hills to the north of our town, and I'd go with him. It definitely seemed a more innocent pastime than this phenomenon of drones. Unfortunately there's always going to be people who do idiotic things, it might not even be the majority but it grabs the media attention and eclipses any positive use of the technology.

  4. -Stacy--space is the key. Long Island neighborhoods had too many houses and too many trees (no such thing, really) to be able to fly them around.
    -Donna--I shudder at the thought of flying cars or hoverboards or jet packs. Chaos in the skies!
    -Nick--The bad apples definitely give the good ones a bad name. I do think the way drones can be flown compared to RC planes makes them prone to abuse. Very unfortunate.

  5. I really enjoyed the animal vs drone report! Those monkeys were smart little beggars, huh?! I don't worry too much about spying drones. (Maybe they can be used to catch criminals in the act or fleeing.) But I'm sure someone will figure out how to strap a bomb on one or how to rig one with a gun. Then we got problems...

  6. -Lexa--yet another example of animals using tools. Obviously, the military is already using armed drones in Afghanistan and Iraq; now we have this:


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