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Hobbyists say drone prices have been driven down sharply even in the past two or three years mainly by the surge in popularity of smartphones. The chips smartphones use to determine whether they’re being held vertically or horizontally or to locate themselves on a map are the same ones drones use to keep themselves flying straight, level and in the right direction.

The supply of such chips has spiked along with the use of smartphones, sending prices lower.

“Today if you have an iPhone or an Android, you basically have an autopilot in your pocket. You’re just running the wrong app,” said Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and founder of DIY Drones, an online community and company that sells drone kits and parts.

Anderson started DIY Drones in 2007 after spending the weekend building an electronic Lego robot and trying to fly a radio-controlled plane with his kids. The robot didn’t impress the kids on its own, and the plane was hard to fly, Anderson said. So the family used the Legos to build a primitive autopilot and attached it to the plane. The kids thought it was cool for a few weeks, but Anderson became obsessed.

Anderson said safety is a top consideration of his group, and he supports strict observance of the FAA regulations developed in the 1970s to cover the amateur use of radio-controlled planes, which also apply to today’s DIY drones. Those rules include restricting their altitude to 400 feet, requiring them to always be in view of their controller on the ground and prohibiting them from being flown over built-up areas.

That last rule reportedly led to trouble for some Los Angeles real estate agents, who were warned by police to stop using drones to take photos and video of homes for sale, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In Berkeley, Harrison and Oesterer spent more time tweaking wires and software than their drones spent in the air. Part of the reason was battery power: Their drones rely on the latest in lightweight laptop batteries to stay aloft but suck significantly more power. Still, both say would-be pilots don’t need degrees in computer science or electrical engineering to send drones skyward.

Said Oesterer: “It’s getting really close to plug-and-fly.”

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Online:

DIY Drones: http://www.diydrones.com

EastBay RC: http://eastbay-rc.com

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Follow Marcus Wohlsen on Twitter: http://twitter.com/marcuswohlsen