Before you buy a Black Friday drone, read this

Drone expert Jim Bowers displays a model aircraft while flying a quad-copter unmanned aircraft (drone).
Drone expert Jim Bowers displays a model aircraft while flying a quad-copter unmanned aircraft (drone). Jim Bowers

They’re set to be one of the hottest gifts this holiday season.

“The talking point is that there will be a million drones under people’s Christmas trees this year,” said Rich Swayze, assistant administrator for policy, international affairs and environment for the Federal Aviation Administration. Swayze made the comment in front of an audience at a recent commercial aviation industry summit in Washington, D.C.

You may be one of the many planning to purchase and gift-wrap a drone. But before you plunk down your credit card on that smoking-hot Black Friday deal, there are some things you should know. Consider the following information an early Christmas present.

More regulation is coming

To get a handle on the explosive growth in recreational and commercial use of unmanned aircraft, an FAA task force issued a Nov. 21 recommendation that all drones more than 250 grams (about half a pound) be required to register.

The panel recommended that registration be free and quickly processed through a website or smartphone app that would generate a unique identification number that could be used to ID the owner in the event of a mishap.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the goal is to have the system “up and running as soon as possible,” but he offered no timetable. It’s also unclear whether the task force recommendations will be accepted by the FAA as presented. But it’s a safe bet that some sort of registration eventually will be required for all but the smallest of drones.

Go small first

With higher-end drones costing several thousands of dollars, drone expert Jim Bowers suggests new users work through their beginner mistakes on inexpensive training drones.

It’s not if a drone will crash, but when, said Bowers, who has produced hundreds of drone instructional videos on his Demunseed YouTube channel.

“You hit hard with a big drone and you immediately have to pay $600 for a new high-def camera,” said Bowers, who lives in Colfax.

He suggests building your skills on a Nano 3D ($22), which does most things the bigger boys do (minus the camera). It comes with a replacement prop if one breaks. And at 36 grams, it would not be required to register under the task-force recommendation.

Know the rules

Whether you’re flying a tiny trainer or a $3,600 top-of-the-line drone, there are rules to follow. Here are some to keep in mind:

▪ Keep your drone within eyesight and under 400 feet high.

▪ Never fly over people, vehicles or personal property.

▪ Never fly within 5 miles of an airport.

▪ Never fly at an emergency response scene, including a fire, without permission.

For more detailed information, visit

Aim it forward

If you’re planning on purchasing a drone, here’s a quick tip for flying: Keep it aimed forward.

“When you start out flying, always fly with the tail facing toward you,” Bowers said.

When the tail is facing you, pushing right on the control stick moves the craft to the right. Pushing left moves the craft to the left. But if you rotate the craft so the nose is facing you, right becomes left, left becomes right and users get confused, Bowers said. That’s when crashes usually occur.

A thumbless flying future

As drone technology advances, it likely will offer new ways to navigate and protect the aircraft.

Many higher-end drones already use GPS positioning that forces crafts to land if they approach restricted airspace. Future drones will begin incorporating more accident- and object-avoidance technology, Bowers said.

Some newer drones offer “waypoint” positioning, which allow users to plot a course using a Google map. The drone then uses the map to execute a course without human input.

“They are getting much better at auto-positioning,” Bowers said. “The drone can literally fly itself without hands-on controls.”

Matt Fisher, of Oakland talks about his flying in the Drone Racing at the California State Fair in Sacramento. Video by Hector Amezcua, The Sacramento Bee

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch

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