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Commentary

Gary Borders: On pondering a drone purchase

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Drones make the news quite often lately, both for the large unmanned versions used to launch stealth attacks in places like Afghanistan, and the much smaller ones used for a variety of non-lethal purposes: photography, tracking cattle in desolate places, or trying to catch drug traffickers. The Federal Aviation Administration recently outlined its proposed new rules in what has been a largely unregulated area, such as keeping drones within sight of the operator, no higher than 500 feet or faster than 100 mph. This is likely going to scotch Amazon’s plans to use drones to deliver packages. I will not be receiving my latest shipment of books by drone, apparently.

My interest in drones has heightened considerably since a recent trip to Mexico and Big Bend with a couple of photographers who arrived with an amazing array of cool equipment. At our first stop, one of the shooters pulled out what looked like a suitcase, unpacked and assembled a drone.

His drone was a quad copter, meaning it had four rotors. A small video camera was attached to it, and he controlled it with a handheld console and a joystick. It sounded like a very loud and angry bumblebee as it headed up in the air. One would not be able to sneak up on anyone with this style of drone.

The photographer got some nice footage with the drone, of farmers riding horses in a dusty pasture at sunset, of a sunrise over a mountain. But then calamity struck when the gust of wind knocked the drone into the side of a canyon, where it landed on a ledge, perhaps 75 feet above the Rio Concho. Incredibly, he climbed down a cliff and retrieved his toy. But a rotor was broken, and he was out of replacements. That was the last time we got to watch the drone in action.

But I am hooked. I noticed the other day a front-page photo in the Sulphur Springs paper. It was an arresting aerial view of downtown, which visitors know is quite an attractive place these days. I read the caption, wondering how the photographer had climbed up to get the shot. I found out it was shot by a drone owned by the Hopkins County Sheriff’s Department. I called the department to try to get more information on why it had a drone, but nobody returned my call.

Next I went to Amazon, figuring a company that planned on using drones might be a good place to buy one. I was startled to discover one can buy a drone, with camera and extra rotors for $54.99 and have it delivered in two days. Not by drone but by UPS.  That is in my price range. But when reading the customer reviews I learned the copter is only about six inches square.

A disclaimer advised me to visit Amazon’s Drone Store, which urged me to learn how to “Fly Responsibly”. Sound advice there, based on that review.

The drones sold in the photography portion of the Drone Store are considerably more pricey, starting at about $500 and going up to $3,439 for the LanLanDJ1S1000 Spreading Wings Premium Octocopter. That model looks like a space-age octopus. I suspect the photographer on our trip spent somewhat more than $54.99 but likely less than three grand.

I couldn’t possibly see a six-inch drone from more than about 30 feet away, so it looks like there are no drones in my future. It sure would be fun to play with, though my inability to figure out the remote for the DVD player doesn’t bode well for being able to actually fly a drone without creating a disaster.

But they sure are fun to watch.