Las Vegas Sun: Putting a drone under the tree? Know that rules and regs are attached

It’s the season of drones, with experts estimating that shoppers will purchase as many as 400,000 small unmanned aerial vehicles during the 2015 holiday season.

In the past year, retail drones have become increasingly available to consumers. But if you’re thinking about buying one for a family member or friend — or maybe treating yourself to one — you should be aware of parameters and rules governing their use.

As Michael Huerta, director of the Federal Aviation Administration, recently wrote: “Pilots with little or no aviation experience will be at the controls of many of these aircraft. Many of these new aviators may not even be aware that their activities in our airspace could be dangerous to other aircraft — or that they are, in fact, pilots once they start flying their unmanned aircraft.”

Retail drones range from toys like the iQuad Remote Control Micro Quadcopter for $20, to tools for professional aerial photography, like the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced Quadcopter for $1,000. Shoppers can find them online at Amazon or Walmart, in mega-retail stores like Target, or at specialty stores like Las Vegas-based Drone Plus, the largest drone retailer in North America. The gadgets, considered model aircraft by the government, are legal to fly.

But they can’t be legally flown everywhere, so here’s what to know about flying one.

Neither recreational nor commercial drone pilots should fly in these areas:

• Within five miles of an airport, unless granted permission

• Near stadiums or racetrack events

• Outside of the pilot’s visual line of sight

• Over concentrated groups of people

• Near emergency response operations

Restrictions for recreational pilots include:

• They can’t fly a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds.

• There’s a 400-foot altitude limit for recreational drones.

• Recreational pilots can’t fly a drone for any commercial use, which the FAA defines as any time a drone is used in connection with a business for activities like surveying or photography.

A drone is shown in the pilot’s area during the inaugural Xtreme Drone Circuit in the Western Hotel in downtown Las Vegas Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. The video-piloting sport has pilots tracking their drones through goggles that enable them to see the race from the drone’s point-of-view in real time.

What kind of drone is best for the person on your shopping list?

Tommi Harsch, an executive assistant to the owner of Drones Plus, which has 15 stores in North America and is adding another 12 stores in 2016, shared tips about buying drones:

• Start with something small

For first-time drone pilots, Harsch recommends starting with a smaller, cheaper drone. Not necessarily because they are easier to fly. But because they are harder to fly.

The more expensive drones — most devices over $600 — can handle flight without a controller. If something goes wrong, they will self-stabilize in the air. But less pricy units require the pilot to manipulate the drone the entire time it is in flight, forcing the novice pilot to practice and get comfortable before moving on to a more expensive model.

• The Internet is the best resource

Do your research. And for that research, the Internet offers a bounty of information, according to Harsch. Drones can be a big holiday purchase, and can be a long-term investment for hobbyist photographers and others. So it’s important to read the reviews and dig into reviews of other users’ experiences. “There are so many drone nerds out there,” Harsch said. Accordingly, there are plenty of forums with information about technical issues and experiences with particular models. See or

• Consider who is getting the gift

As with any gift, it’s important to think about who the drone is for and what that person is likely to do with it. For instance, Harsch recommends a toy drone for anyone younger than 16. It’s also worth remembering that many drones can be customized with stronger propellers or landing gear that enhances the drone’s recording camera.

The following items, she said, are the most popular for novices and for professionals:

• For beginning pilots: Blade Glimpse FPV Quadcopter, $170

This small drone offers a first-person-view function that allows users to see exactly what the camera sees while it’s in the air. It has a high-definition camera and offers a live video feed that works within a radius of about 80 feet from the operator.

For seasoned pilots: DJI’s Phantom 3, $699 to $1,260

The third-generation of DJI’s Phantom drone comes in three models: standard, advanced and professional. All models have high-resolution cameras that allow photographers to capture crisp images and can all function for several thousand feet. The standard version requires a network connection to monitor in-flight video. The advanced and professional versions, in addition to several other upgrades, do not require a network connection or wireless signal.

The biggest piece of advice

Keep your eyes on the drone. “The biggest mistake people make is to let their eyes wander when they’re flying,” Harsch said. Keeping your eyes tethered to the drone at all times can help reduce the chance of a crash, she said. And in addition to being dangerous, a crash can be costly, especially when operating a larger drone.

The future and a registry?

The FAA is still in the process of integrating small drones into the national airspace. In coming weeks, it is possible that the FAA could sign off on a provision to require all recreational drone owners to register their drones in a database. The government has assured drone owners that this process will be easy. The registry is meant to enable the government to identify drones in crashes and drones flying in unauthorized airspace.

For the most timely information and updates, drone pilots should check out “Know Before You Fly,”an education campaign produced in partnership with the FAA.