A user flies his drone at a park at Sydney’s Dover Heights. Photo: Dallas Kilponen The view of swimmers at Bondi Icebergs from a drone. Photo: 3DR/Dallas Kilponen
A shot of surfers at the the southern end of Bondi from a drone. Photo: 3DR/Dallas Kilponen
To feed his passion for photographing Sydney’s cityscape, Beau used to fork out $800 to charter a helicopter for just half an hour.
Four months ago, he unwrapped his alternative to hiring a chopper. The present to himself was a drone that needs only its battery recharged for repeated trips into the city’s skies to capture images that can blow the mind. Better still, it had a one-off price tag of $1860.
“For the price and the fun it is worthwhile for me,” says Beau, who does not want to give his surname.
Known as The Inked Shooter to his 40,000 followers on Instagram, Beau is one of a growing number of Australians who are turning to the skies.
Drones are literally flying off shop shelves in the lead-up to Christmas. They have become cheaper despite their growing sophistication. In recent years, the price of a basic device has fallen from about $500 to less than $100.
Large retailers such as Myer, JB-Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman have predicted drones will be near the top of shoppers’ wish lists this Christmas. In some Myer stores, shoppers can test fly drones in special cages.
A carpenter by day, Beau has snapped photographs from hair-raising locations atop buildings and cliff edges.
While still cautious about flying his new toy, the DJI Phantom 3 allows him to take photographs from places most people cannot easily reach – and without risk to life or limb. A live feed from the built-in video camera on his drone is also fed to his iPad, offering eye-catching views from high above.
“You can get vantage points from drones that even a helicopter can’t get to. It is definitely addictive when you fly them,” Beau says.
Air-safety authorities require users to be within line of sight of their drones, and at least three nautical miles away from aerodromes. There are exceptions, of course, provided users gain approval from regulators.
In the world of adventure sports, drones are documenting moments that were once consigned to memories. “Dronies” are replacing self portraits via “selfies” on mobile phones as the new craze. With a drone flying above, adventurers are able to photograph or video themselves living life on the edge.
However, drone users are finding their flight paths can be challenging.
“There are a lot of drone haters out there,” an enthusiast says.
Drones have received a bad wrap for a variety of reasons – from disturbing wildlife to endangering firefighters and planes on fire-bombing missions during bushfires.
Several weeks ago, Leichhardt Council voted to ban the flying of drones at parks because of concerns about the risk of injury to people from them crashing, and the possibility of users taking unauthorised photographs of children.
Yet as their use soars, a middle ground will need to be found in Australia between users and their detractors.
To the purists, whatever you do, don’t call them drones. Instead, they are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or quadcopters. Purists dislike labelling them drones because of the negative press they have received over the years. Much of it has arisen from the US military’s growing reliance on drone strikes in conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen over the past decade.
For a long time, users have operated their drones in a murky world. Law enforcement has lagged the massive increase in the use, type and sophistication of drones flying in our skies.
The law is starting to catch up with the flying robots, however.
Ski resorts such as Thredbo and Perisher in NSW, and Falls Creek in Victoria, have mostly no-fly zones for drones. “It is just pure safety,” a spokeswoman for Thredbo says of the reasons for the ban.
There are exceptions for UAVs flying above the slopes but even special projects require “risk assessments”.
Besides, mountains are not easy areas in which to fly drones due to thermal updrafts and high winds. The risk of crashing a $3000 drone into a mountain deters many. Instead, many skiers and snowboarders opt for GoPros – a camera attached to their bodies to catch their acrobatics.
In national parks, the rules on drones are strict. Apart from needing an operator’s certificate, it is an offence to fly a drone in a way that is “likely to interfere with or cause a nuisance” to people or animals. Users are also banned from flying them lower than 300 metres above whales or other marine mammals.
Drones, or UAVs to the purists, are finding an ever-growing range of uses for business and government.
The NSW government is trialling drones at Coffs Harbour on the state’s North Coast to keep a better watch of sharks. Images taken from the drones will be fed in real time to operators using GPS coordinates.
UAVs are already used widely in agriculture, the resources industry and aerial surveying.
Flying robots are becoming mainstream for recreation, too.
As retailers bank on this Christmas turning into the season of the drones, they are spruiking the benefits of drones and app-enabled robotics for “connected play”.
“This year we are anticipating strong interest for drones, and in particular toys and apps that encourage learning through ‘connected play’ using handheld devices,” Myer’s general manager of stores, Tony Sutton, says.
Drones sold at Myer’s department stores range from $150 for basic devices to $1499 for enthusiasts. At other chain stores, basic drones can sell for as less than $100.
Last year, Myer sold out of most models by Christmas Eve.
This year the large retailer expects “strong interest across all models” as demand climbs. And as every year passes, drones are becoming more advanced. The Sphero Star Wars BB8 Droid from the US has “in-built artificial intelligence” to enable it to interact with its human controllers.
“Unlike traditional toys, Sphero’s robots and software are changing the way people play, learn, and explore by fusing emerging technology with the latest innovations in robotics,” Sutton says.
Myer’s most advanced product is the Parrot Bebop Drone + SkyController, which can fly as far as two kilometres in open range, and has a 14-megapixel video recorder.
Drones have become big business. French manufacturer Parrott says revenue from drone sales surged by more than 60 per cent to €44 million ($64 million) in the September quarter.
In the US, the Consumer Technology Association estimates 400,000 drones will be sold this holiday season.
While Australia is said to have the second-largest number of drone sales in the world, statistics on how many have actually been sold here are scant. The Australian Retailers Association does not collate data on specific product sales and individual retailers are reluctant to release figures.
Part of the reason is that defining a drone is a challenge in itself.
Despite their increasing popularity, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has only about 320 registered users of drones on its books. Most of those registered use their flying machines for photography or surveying.
By law, drones are not allowed to be flown within 30 metres of people, or more than 400 metres above the ground. However, users can seek permission from CASA to fly higher or closer to people.
Last year, the aviation watchdog issued 15 infringement notices – six in NSW, and two in both Victoria and Queensland – for breaches such as flying too close to people. Penalties range from $900 to $9600 for misuse of remotely piloted aircraft.
However, CASA concedes it is difficult to impose fines because of the difficulty determining who has flown a drone past your house or over a park.
In the US, regulators are looking for ways to better monitor recreational drones as their use skyrockets, causing problems for passenger aircraft, airports and firefighters.
The Federal Aviation Administration flexed its muscle in October when it proposed fining a company that uses drones to photograph “bird’s eye views” of cities a record $US1.9 million.
“Under the law, your drone is an aircraft. So while the rules for drones may be different, you have the responsibility to operate safely, just as a Cessna or 747 pilot does,” the FAA says.
Love or loathe them, drones are no longer merely eyes in the skies.
Salah Sukkarieh, a professor at Sydney University and director of research and innovation at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, says the technology is accelerating as developers add a vast array of sensors to UAVs, including lasers to measure the height of terrain.
“Amazon and Domino’s are talking about delivering books and pizzas using drones. Within five years we will see interesting applications for UAVs,” he says.
Researchers are developing ways to boost the intelligence of UAVs, which will allow them to track animals, pick up or drop loads or change flight paths on their own accord after detecting something on the ground.
“What we are starting to see are concepts around swarming with multiple UAVs coming together – two or three UAVs that fly within a given space and co-ordinate with each other,” Sukkarieh says.
“That is when you really start calling them robotic aircraft – what you imagine of a robot today but just flying.”
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