- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - Quadcopters, drones, unmanned aircraft systems: Whatever you call them, there’s likely to be a lot of them under trees Christmas morning and hovering over houses and backyards by that afternoon.

“We sold about 600 of these last Christmas,” Larry Bennett said, pulling a tiny helicopter with four blades - one in each corner - from the display case at his east side store, RC Hobbies Plus. With the flip of a couple of switches, tiny electric motors whine, sounding like a dentist drill, then the copter lifts off from the countertop for a quick trip around the shop.

Plunk down $40 at Bennett’s shop, and you can walk out with this quadcopter that fits in the palm of a hand, even a tiny hand.

For $20 more, a slightly larger quadcopter comes with an on-board camera and can handle flights outside in calm winds. It has to be plugged into a computer, tablet or cellphone to retrieve the images though.

The popularity of the quadcopters is that they require very little - if any - practice to fly, unlike remote control airplanes, which might take years to master.

“Anybody can fly it. It doesn’t take anything special,” Ron Kovach, a member of Lafayette Cloud Jockeys, a RC aircraft club, told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/1tyLI9k ).

As Kovach busied himself tinkering with a large remote control airplane, Tony Venezia and Matt McDonough launched their quadcopters into the cloudless sky, hovered over the field and streamed video back to McDonough’s tablet. A review of McDonough’s video is the stuff of kids’ dreams when they imagine what it’s like to fly.

“People have used them on boats and taken pictures out there in the ocean,” Venezia said. “The views that you get are so fantastic to what a normal person could do, and it’s a lot cheaper than renting an airplane or a helicopter.”

Someone flew a quadcopter with a video camera into the New York City Independence Day fireworks show earlier this year. The video went viral, but the simplicity of the quadcopters - the ability to carry cameras and stream high-quality video - are the toys’ curses and blessings.

“Privacy issues,” Venezia said when asked what was controversial. “Are people taking pictures of people? Your back backyard, your pool?”

The blessings include that quadcopters can fly over crops and determine, by using special cameras, if there are problems. But the FAA will not allow commercial use of the quadcopters, so farmers have to own their own, Venezia said.

Another value is that a quadcopter fitted with infrared cameras can search for missing people over fields or above treetops, he said.

A copter with these capabilities is affordable. For those willing to jump up to the $700- to $1,000-price range, the copters come with cameras mounted on a gimbal that stream steady video to tablets or phones, Bennett said. McDonough paid $1,200 for his rig. The same quadcopter, camera and gimbal set is now about $750.

So far, Lafayette police Chief Patrick Flannelly said officers have not received any complaints about the quadcopters. On the West Side, where the toys are popular with students, police rarely take a report, Capt. Gary Sparger said earlier this year. When officers have taken a complaint, they forward it to the FAA representative at Purdue Airport.

The utility of these aircraft is not missed on police agencies. Flannelly said Lafayette police have considered using them in tactical situations, which Venezia said gives rise to constitutional rights issues of unreasonable searches. Right now, the FAA is reviewing its policies over the use of quadcopters in commercial applications.

Quads must be flown within the line of sight, Venezia said, which means you can’t allow them to fly too high or too far. Bennett said the range is roughly a mile or so from the control box and the battery life is roughly 15 minutes.

Some of the copters for sale at Bennett’s shop can fly and hover around 3,000 feet - admittedly in ideal situations. But that would be out of sight, which is not allowed.

In fact, within 5 miles of an airport, those operating remote control aircraft - quadcopters, model helicopters or remote control planes - are supposed to contact the tower to inform the FAA of where and what they’re flying. Within the 5-mile range, remote control aircraft - including quadcopters - are not allowed to exceed 500 feet. Beyond the 5 mile range, it’s whatever the machines can tolerate.

With the toys being sold at hobby stores, department stores and even truck stops, Al Borges, president of Lafayette Cloud Jockeys, said neighbors should expect to see more and more of the remote control toys.

While most new owners of quadcopters won’t take time to even read the directions, let alone research the FAA rules, here is what the administration says:

DO:

- Fly at a local model aircraft club.

- Take lessons and learn to fly safely.

- Contact the airport or control tower when flying within 5 miles of the airport.

- Fly a model aircraft for personal enjoyment.

DON’T:

- Fly near manned aircraft.

- Fly beyond line of sight of the operator.

- Fly an aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds unless it is certified by an aeromodeling community-based organization.

- Fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes.

___

Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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