What you need to know about commercial drones
Wondering why you don't see drones everywhere, despite the intention of Amazon and others to deliver all the things with flying robots? Here's why: It's illegal. The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn't permit filming, crop-spraying, spying, tour-guiding, pizza delivery or any other commercial drone applications (you can, however, fly one privately). "But that's unjust!" you may rail. "Why should the government stop businesses from plying their trades?" The FAA is charged with keeping the skies safe, and drone operators could pose a danger to commercial aircraft or spy on you illegally. On the other hand, US businesses want the FAA to approve drone use stat, so they can stop operating quasi-illegally and start making money. So, who's right? Who's wrong? Here are the ABCs of commercial drone flight in the US.
WHAT ARE THEY?
First, a little terminology. The industry would prefer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or any moniker except "drone," but we'll use the terms interchangeably. UAVs/drones are defined as any aircraft without a pilot aboard, but they can be broken down broadly into two categories: rotary drones -- like the swarming KMel quadrotors or Amazon's octacopter -- and fixed-wing drones like the Puma. (We're focusing on commercial models, not Predator-style military drones.) Like their civilian helicopter and airplane counterparts, each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Rotary drones get the glory. For one, they make perfect camera platforms for stunning aerial shots, since they can hover and maneuver in any direction. While you may be familiar with the smartphone-guided Parrot AR Drone 2, other models -- like the DJI Phantom series -- are more common for commercial purposes. Starting at $679, the latter can pack a GoPro Hero 3 or its own camera, but if you want to carry a mirrorless, DSLR or cinema camera, you'll need one of DJI's expert cameras or models like the BeetleCopter or Infinite Jib -- and a lot more money. Rotary copters also do real estate flyovers, journalism, herding, agriculture, deliveries and spying, to name just a few. The main drawbacks to copter drones are slower speeds and shorter range than fixed-wing models; even with battery extenders, most can't run more than a half-hour.