The first time I flew a drone, aside from the excitement and anticipation of learning a whole new skill set, one of my primary feelings was concern for safety. I momentarily wondered whether my new hobby was going to be dangerous in any way for myself or my children who were watching nearby.
So, are drones dangerous? Drones have the potential to be dangerous. As with almost any activity, there are some potential risks. When used inappropriately, drones can pose a threat to personal safety, both to that of the pilot and bystanders, as well as damage to property. But, when flown with care and caution, in accordance with their intended use, and in adherence to safety regulations, flying drones is a relatively safe, fun hobby.
Drones have by and large become a little bit of old news, until an injury-inflicting crash or airport close call hits the headlines again. But those instances, by the very fact of being big news, stand out as being exceptions to the rule. For almost all users of drones, and especially those who are willing to understand and follow safety regulations, any type of serious injury or damage to self or property is unlikely to be a part of their drone story.
Potential Risks, and How to Mitigate Them
There are many ways that drones have the potential to cause harm. They could cause harm to yourself or others, damage to your property, or the property of others. This seriousness of this type of risk is largely dependent upon the pilot. Is she exercising caution, flying in appropriate conditions and in approved areas? Does he have an adequate understanding of how the drone works, its safety features, and awareness of personal responsibility to those nearby?
Above and beyond careless use leading to accidental injuries or damage, drones, just like many other extremely useful items, carry the risk of being used for malicious purposes. They can be used to carry contraband items over prisons, for instance, or even help aid inmates in escape. However, this type of danger is not really related to the drone itself, but rather to the individual at the controls. The drone is merely the vehicle.
In the hands of well-intentioned, well-informed individuals, drones are a safe, low-risk hobby. A little bit of knowledge and preparation go a long way in preventing harm, even from the get-go for novice pilots. If you are aware of where the hazards lie, it’s easy to safeguard against them, and thereby avoid any serious incidents. Below I outline a couple of the potential dangers associated with the use of drones, and then how to be smart and safe, limiting those dangers.
Those little propeller blades spinning around are mildly terrifying, and rightly so. They do have the potential to cause cuts, eye injury, or even get hair caught up in them. Drone propellers are not extremely hard, generally being made of flexible plastic. The propellers of a small drone are unlikely to cause serious injury, but as the size of the drone (and proportionally) the size of the propeller blades increases, the potential for serious injury also increases. A simple way to help keep the blades of a typical recreational drone away from fingers or other body parts is to attach propeller guards. Depending on the model that you have, these may be included with the drone upon purchase, or can easily be found to buy separately at relatively low cost. There are a variety of types of guards to choose from, depending on how cautious you want to be, and the type of drone you are flying. A simple and inexpensive safeguard against cuts, beginner drone pilots should definitely get those propeller guards on your aircraft before powering up.
Crashes & Collisions
Everyone has heard the stories of the fly-away drone that crashes into a building. Or about the drone falling out of the sky over a crowd of people. It is true, a drone plowing full speed into the side of your garage could make a hole, and one falling on your head could cause serious injury. The best way to avoid these types of scenarios (as rare as they are) is to know and follow the safe flight guidelines outlined by the FAA for recreational users.
In brief overview, here are some guidelines that will help you to keep yourself and others safe:
- Register. It’s cheap, only $5 for a two year license for hobbyists. And it’s easy – you can do it online in a matter of minutes.
- Keep your drone at or below 400 feet altitude. This helps to ensure you are not entering manned aircraft zones.
- Always keep your drone within line of sight. Losing sight of your drone’s location means you are at greater risk of losing connection with the controller, and have limited ability to navigate obstacles.
- Keep your drone at least five miles away from an airport. Also, be aware of other restricted airspace, and stay away. Apps such as AirMap can show you no fly zones if you’re not sure.
- Never fly over groups of people. This includes public events, stadiums, etc.
- Respect privacy. Don’t go poking your drone where it has no business.
There are a few other tactics you can employ to avoid unnecessary crashes. Many of the off-the-shelf beginner drones come equipped with a whole lot of smart features that can help you, but you need to learn how they work. Take the time to familiarize yourself with these smart features and safety features before you take to the skies. One caveat here however – don’t rely too heavily on your drone’s features. Make sure you as the operator remain alert and vigilant at all times, just as you would be when driving a vehicle or riding a bike. Don’t forget that you are ultimately responsible for a safe flight.
Drone Safety Features
That said, the safety features below (drone model depending) may be available on your drone to help with avoiding crashes and collisions.
Many hobby drones have some type of obstacle avoidance system, but it’s important to learn how the system works on your particular drone. Will the drone stop and hover when it meets an obstacle? Or will it go around and continue in its previous direction? Where are the sensors located? Knowing these things about how your drone’s sense and avoid technology works will help you to know how much to lean on the system.
Return to Home
Many drones have an automatic return to home feature if the controller loses connection with the drone, or if your battery level is too low. You should know whether or not this is the case with yours before taking off. Also, you probably have a return to home button on your controller. Knowing where this is located is key if you should become disoriented or turned around.
Hover and Pause
Some drones may have a hover button and/or a pause button. If you’re feeling disoriented, or the controls are not responding as you expect, you can hit the hover button to have the drone immediately stop and hover in place. This can be an quick way to avoid a collision, as you’re learning the ropes of flight skills.
Emergency Engine Cutoff
If you’ve lost sight of your drone, it’s not responding to the return to home command, or seems to be headed for a fly-away, hit the emergency cutoff. Yes, the drone will plummet, and you’ll be taking home the remains, but that’s better than having an unnecessary injury on your conscience.
The Bottom Line – Learn to Fly!
Drones are lots of fun to fly, and open a world of possibilities for artistic expression, entertainment, and even employment. The level of risk is relatively low, when caution is exercised and safety features are utilized. But the best way to make your drone flights safer is to gain experience. Log those hours of practice, and as you develop expertise and skill, your confidence in your own safety and those nearby can pretty much be taken for granted.