New technology making drones easier, more affordable
The must-have gift of the season isn't a Frozen doll or a loom to weave rubberband bracelets.
This year everyone from elementary schoolers to the 59-year-old governor of Massachusetts is asking Santa for a drone.
The popularity of recreational drones is reaching new heights. Drones have been available to shoppers for years, but recent technological advances that make them easier to fly and offer higher quality cameras have turned a novelty item into a product with mass market appeal. The Federal Aviation Administration anticipates 1 million will be sold this holiday season.
"The transition came when we stopped thinking about them as flying toys, but flying cameras with high-quality specs," said Ben Arnold, a consumer technology analyst with the NPD Group of New York. "It brought a new kind of consumer into the market."
Models of drones vary from "nano" versions about the size of a quarter to aircraft with 4K video cameras and built-in GPS technology. Prices range from as little as $20 to several thousand.
But before deciding which one is the best gift this Christmas, there are a few things you should consider.
New guidelines will probably require drone operators to register their aircraft with the federal government. The FAA released preliminary recommendations for drone regulations last month, suggesting that anyone with a drone that weighs about a half-pound or more should register his or her name and address. Final regulations are expected by the end of the year.
Established laws governing the safe operation of unmanned aircraft prohibit drone owners from flying more than 400 feet above the ground. The rules state that operators must keep the drone within their line of sight and remain clear of planes and helicopters. Drones can't fly within 5 miles of an airport, directly over people, or near stadiums on game days, according to the FAA.
Due to safety issues, Arnold said, parents should be cautious about buying a drone for a child.
"Until you get really good at operating this thing, it could fall out of the sky and you could lose control of it," Arnold said. "I would not give anyone younger than a teenager a drone to operate. Even if it's one of those $20 drones, they still go high in the air."
But drone companies say young children can safely operate some models.
Robert Morrison is the founder and chief executive for Axis Drones, a Macedon, N.Y., company that claims to sell the world's smallest four-rotor drone, known as a quadcopter. Each side of Axis's "Aerius" model is a little more than one inch long and wide and less than an inch tall.
Morrison said the $35 drone is recommended for ages 14 and up, but he believes children as young as 8 will be able to safely maneuver it.
"It's good for kids and big kids like me and to help people learn flight mechanics," Morrison said. "If you crash it, it won't hurt anybody, and it won't hurt itself, so you can keep flying."
Aerius is built for indoor use and serves as a beginner drone for people with limited experience. It can travel more than 100 feet with a battery that lasts 5 minutes per charge.
Axis launched a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for a different drone model earlier this year and sold 12,000, most of which were bought for men between the ages of 30 and 55.
Morrison said sales are picking up as the holidays near.
"I know without a doubt that we're going to sell out of every model I have," said Morrison, who had about 20,000 drones made for the holiday period. "I maxed out my credit line and emptied out my bank account just to make as many models as I can."
Meanwhile, the French company Parrot said its consumer drone revenues increased 60 percent in the third quarter from the previous period in 2014. Consumer drones made up 87 percent of the revenue, or roughly $42 million. The company expects total revenue to top $100 million in the fourth quarter.
Parrot offers a variety of drones, from a line of smartphone-controlled Minidrones with 360- pixel cameras for about $100, to the upcoming $550 Bebop 2 quadcopter that shoots 1080p video and is equipped with GPS and sensors that allow it to hover without your control.
A Chinese company, DJI Technology Co., is the market leader in the consumer drone category, with about 70 percent share.
DJI's Phantom 3 drone retails for $700 to $1,259. The standard model is equipped with a camera that shoots 2.7 HD video and 12 mega-pixel pictures, while the professional model shoots 4K HD videos and features an automatic takeoff and return function.
Adam Najberg, a spokesman for DJI, said operators orient the drone when they turn it on, which allows it to hover in place, and geo-fencing prevents anyone from flying into restricted areas, such as FAA airspace.
The Phantom 3 offers about 25 minutes of flight time per charge, with the drone automatically returning to the ground when the battery runs low.