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Private drone use is taking off

Will Hearrell works on an electric drone at HobyTown USA.

John O'Hara/ For the Argus-Courier
Published: Monday, November 19, 2012 at 9:46 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 19, 2012 at 9:46 a.m.

When HobbyTown USA owner Steve Elliot first began selling “drones” a couple years ago, he only had one or two customers inquiring about them.

But now, with people finding real-world applications for the small, pilotless aircrafts, people are coming in and asking about them much more regularly, according to Elliot.

Different from the typical, radio-controlled airplane most people are familiar with, drones are capable of flying and navigating without anyone controlling it remotely. Elliot said that a radio-controlled plane becomes a drone when it is given a “brain” to fly itself, such as a GPS navigation system.

Real estate agents in the area are using drones to photograph their vineyard properties, police and fire departments are experimenting with drones for patrolling and, of course, the hobbyist is fueling the commercial push said Elliot, who added that the market is growing rapidly. He pointed out that his drone customer list has grown from one to 12 in the last two years.

In fact, the private drone market is growing so rapidly that it recently prompted the former editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, well-known techie Chris Anderson, to leave the publishing world and begin his own online business completely devoted to amateur drone enthusiasts and technology.

Anderson is not alone. Drones have long been used by the military for reconnaissance and targeting terrorist groups around the world, but have recently been making their way into the private sector. Companies across the country are designing drones for commercial and other uses. Police and fire departments are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to begin patrolling using drone technology in order to monitor areas, track wildfires and search for criminals, potentially adding another tool to the law enforcement arsenal.

Technically-minded individuals are picking up drones as a hobby or investment as well. However, it is not a cheap toy. Elliot said a very simple drone that fits into the palm of a hand and flies on a pattern — with no camera equipment capabilities — can cost somewhere between $200 and $600. He added that the basic model that can reliably carry a camera starts at around $1,000.

“For those who want GPS and DSLR camera carrying ability, they could be looking at $12,000 to $15,000,” Elliot said.

Eli Deliah, an amateur drone operator and regular at HobbyTown in Petaluma, says he is already using drone technology to fuel interest in his paintballing company in American Canyon. Deliah said that in today's world of advertising, drones are providing his 26-year-old company a leg up on the competition.

“Right now I'm just having GPS put in so they can hover over our courts and videotape the games,” said Deliah. “Later, we'd like to use them to carry water and radios out to teams in the fields during games.” Deliah called the drone industry a cresting wave and advised people to start surfing.

Patrick Gilles, a Marin filmmaker, is having HobbyTown fit his drone for a stronger motor to carry a heavier camera. He has been using drone technology since 2010 to capture aerial shots for his movies and to shoot photos and videos for local real estate agents needing to advertise their properties.

“It's a fast-growing segment of digital cinema and media because you can control them and are able to get the job done quickly,” Gilles said.

Gone are the days when Gilles and other filmmakers were forced to rent expensive helicopters specially fit with rotating camera equipment to grab aerial shots for their movies. Now, he says that he can easily fly his own camera, bring it down to check the video immediately and send it back up if the shot is anything less than what he wanted.

But as this burgeoning industry grows, so are privacy concerns. Partly, those concerns stem from a current lack of regulation that is only staring to be addressed. Under a bill signed by President Obama in February, the FAA was required to write laws governing how it will license police, fire and other public safety organizations to fly the lightweight, low-flying devices. The FAA is also scheduled to draft laws regulating the private drone enthusiast by September of 2015 as well.

During the recent Petaluma City Council race, the activist group Occupy Petaluma created a survey for candidates that included a question regarding the possibility of Petaluma police using drone technology.

Most candidates felt that Petaluma's department had other, more pressing priorities than drone technology — including the restoration of positions lost during the economic downturn. But as the FAA began to field requests to use drone technology from larger law enforcement agencies, including one from the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, civil rights groups like the ACLU are raising concerns about possible invasions of citizens' privacy.

Occupy Petaluma spokesman John Bertucci called the use of drones by police departments an ominous threat to citizen privacy. “Drone surveillance is an invasive possibility,” he said. “There are definite dangers to such an unbridled military police apparatus with the capability to monitor our lives constantly.”

To date, there has been no indication that the Petaluma Police Department is considering using drones. Police Chief Patrick Williams could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

For the average citizen and hobbyist, drones are providing a new technology with endless possibilities. Elliot said that what the landscape of drone regulation will look like in the future remains unclear. “Because it's so expensive right now, you don't have to worry about teenagers mounting a camera to a quadcopter and spying in your window,” he said, but added that it would only take a few such episodes to really hurt the industry.

Gilles said that while he knows tighter industry regulation is on its way from the FAA, right now, he and others like him will continue to experiment.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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