HomeOn the rise: drone purchases expected to surge this holiday season

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By Julia Bergman
Groton — Nearly every day, customers ask Steven Percy, manager and self-proclaimed radio control maniac at Lee’s Toy & Hobby, whether the store has “the drone.”
Friday was no different. Percy spent much of his time at work on Black Friday talking with customers about various models of recreational drones. A wall in the back of the store featured at least 10 different models ranging from smaller, cheaper options that can fly between 5 to 10 minutes to more expensive, bigger options that can fly for 30 minutes.
Drone has become a liberal term used to describe a range of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, even at times in reference to items such as remote-control helicopters.
As many as 400,000 recreational drones are expected to be sold between now and Christmas, according to U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who held a press conference outside Westfarms Mall in West Hartford Friday to alert consumers to new proposed regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration pertaining to small drones.
Blumenthal urged drone users to comply with existing federal law and fly their drones no higher than 400 feet, keep their drones in sight at all times, and to steer clear of planes, helicopters, airports and people and avoid dangerous weather.
A FAA task force, set up in late October to propose a process for registering small UAS, came out with its recommendations on Nov. 21. They include filling out an electronic registration form resulting in an immediate electrionic certificate and personal universal registration number and marking the registration number on the drone before operating it.
“The holidays are weeks away, and unmanned aircraft are going to be a popular gift item. By some estimates, 700,000 new aircraft could be in the homes of consumers by the end of the year. This means unmanned aircraft could soon far outnumber manned aircraft operating in our nation’s airspace,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a meeting of the task force in early November.
“Many of these new aircraft are bringing new users to aviation – most with little or no experience with aviation regulations,” Huerta said at the meeting.
FAA officials say that registration is one tool that they can use to educate new users about airspace rules and to enforce action against those who intentionally violate those rules.

Percy said he directs customers at Lee’s to the website knowbeforeyoufly.org, a site set up by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Academy of Model Aeronautics in partnership with the FAA to promote safe flying of UAS.
Lee’s has sold drones for about five years, Percy said, describing how quickly drone technology has advanced, particularly in the past year. Now, first-person view is a “big deal,” Percy said, adding that customers “want it in real time.”
At Lee’s, the most popular high-end drone is the Blade Chroma Camera Drone, which sells for $1,000. It features a full high-definition camera and live video. Percy said you can tell the drone where to go and take pictures and videos of a point of interest.
The most popular beginner’s drone at Lee’s is the Dromida KODO, which sells for $60. One man browsing the drone options at Lee’s Friday afternoon was opting for a smaller drone for beginners before moving on to bigger, more high-tech options. He had heard the smaller drones were best for practicing since new users often crash a lot more than they land.
Another man in Lee’s on Friday was contemplating buying a drone for his son for Christmas. The man asked Percy a number of questions about the capabilities of various drones. Percy said he often troubleshoots with drone users over the phone or in the store.
Lee’s is competing against big box stores like Walmart and Best Buy. Best Buy in Waterford offered customers about six different drone options ranging from $40 to $300. The most expensive is the Parrot AR. Drone 2.0 Elite Edition, which boasts real-time video feedback among other features.
Target in Waterford also offers several drone options. The most expensive is the Parrot Bebop Drone, which boasts a 180-degree field of view and 14 megapixel high-definition camera, for $395. Many of the drones had catchy names like “jumping sumo” and “rolling spider.” Some could be controlled from a smartphone and roll up walls and into the air.
Drones are “something that our guests are interested in,” Mark Cleary, who handles human resources and community relations at Target in Waterford, said at the store Friday afternoon. He said the store hadn’t noticed a big surge in drone purchases so far.
j.bergman@theday.com