Up, up, and away: Drones, a high commodity this holiday season


Kevin Vera,

Hundreds of hobbyists and spectators gathered a few weeks ago at Sunnyvale’s Baylands Park to witness what is quickly becoming an aerial trend among civilians: drones.

Pilots of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — drones — wore custom-built virtual reality headsets that looked like goggles which allowed them to get a first-person view from the drone’s perspective. Pilots performed freestyle tricks, raced through an obstacle course and battled other drones in mid-air.

Hosted by the Aerial Sports League (ASL), the South Bay Classic is just one of many local competitive drone events — typically sponsored by software companies — that attract hobbyists and aim to help raise awareness that safe, organized drone activities and events happen on a regular basis.

“I’ve been flying [drones] for nine years, since my teenage days and what once started as an unknown hobby has picked up major heat in the last few years,” local hobbyist Randy Bernal said.

“It’s kind of like EDM and raves with kids. Electronic music has been around for decades but when you begin trending and marketing the product correctly you get an explosion of interest and that’s where drones are headed. Up.”

Stores like Best Buy, Target and hobby shops sell commercial drones, toy drones and mini-drones. Manufacturers have made life simple for novice pilots: most UAVs are ready to fly right out of the box with minimal assembly required. Commercial drones allow pilots to capture images and recordings otherwise not feasible unless you had a helicopter. Not only are consumers using them as aerial cameras but they are also used for freestyle competitions, drone battles and racing.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#929393″ txt_color=”#fcfcfc”]“It’s kind of like EDM and raves with kids. Electronic music has been around for decades but when you begin trending and marketing the product correctly you get an explosion of interest and that’s where drones are headed. Up.”[/mks_pullquote]

Drones were once regarded as Obama’s way of spying on sovereign countries or silent aerial weaponry, but they are swiftly evolving into much more. Drones now specialize across multiple industries, such as military, agriculture and real estate. They are even responsible for aerial shots featured in Blockbuster movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street and Skyfall.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that as many as one million drones will be sold this Christmas, according to IBTimes. This Black Friday, two popular drone models — DJI’s Phantom II and Parrot Bebop — went on sale for roughly $300 cheaper than normal. The Phantom II normally sells for about $1,000 and Parrot Bebop sells for approximately $600.

“We saw the first wave of shoppers bum-rush the drones and we had to regulate that section heavily so as to avoid confrontation,” said Edwin Cabrera, a Target executive team leader in San Jose. “Let’s just say the drones flew off the shelves in a matter of hours on Thanksgiving weekend.”

The influx of drones in everyday life has not come without incidents worldwide. From peeping toms using drones to spy on their neighbors to crash landings at the White House, UAVs are becoming a growing presence in everyday life. As a result, the FAA released a detailed report just last month on drone regulations for both commercial and recreational users and are now working towards requiring all drone pilots to register their drones with the FAA. The FAA enforces strict regulations to prevent drones from flying within restricted airspace, such as airports, in order to avoid radio interference.

“You have people use drones for recreation and entertainment and you have people using it for business purposes too, so there’s multiple applications for UAVs and more to come,” said Shawn Barrera, a manager at Drones Plus, a hobby shop in Santa Clara. “Some drones you don’t even have to fly, Lily Robotics made a drone you throw up in the air and it follows you around.”

Technological advancements are rapid in the drone industry. Every year drones can fly for longer, become more stable and fly themselves. Amazon and Google are both in the process of developing drones that will deliver goods to people’s homes just like a UPS driver would.

“Familiarity with the basics is key, [that] is what I tell new pilots before they purchase a drone,” said Barrera, veteran drone pilot with over 20 years in the industry. “We’ve had multiple burglaries and thousands of dollars worth of merchandise stolen, why? Because literally everyone wants drones and because people know it’s the next big thing.”