The World's Most Popular Drone Is a Magnet for Reckless Pilots
The DJI Phantom is also the world's most problematic drone, because any old idiot can use one.
Image: Flickr/Sam Beebe
Have you heard about that time when a drone struck a building in downtown St. Louis? Or the one that time a drone hit a building in midtown Manhattan? Or the scores of people flying drones through fireworks shows this Fourth of July? Or the drone that got knocked out of the sky by rioting Los Angeles Kings fans? Or that whole NYPD fiasco a few weeks ago?
All these nationally reported and sensationalized cases had one thing in common: The pilot was flying a little white drone you can buy on Amazon for less than $500.
It's the DJI Phantom, and it's the drone that's turned its Hong Kong-based manufacturer into the top hobby drone manufacturer. It's also causing headaches for regulators, for DJI, and for old timers in the drone hobby, simply because it's so damn popular. Pardon the bluntness, but the issue at hand is how, exactly, do you get people to not fly these things like a bunch of idiots?
That's a tall order—the Phantom and its successor, the Phantom II, have set the bar to entry so low that anyone with even a passing interest in the hobby can probably afford to buy one, and can probably figure out how to fly it within a few minutes.
It's become the iPod of drones, the thing that has taken them completely mainstream. If you're picturing a "drone" in your head that's not the Predator, it's probably the Phantom. Hell, even Martha Stewart has one.
And, right now, there are no federal regulations about where, when, and how you can fly your drone. So lots of people fly them however they want. In too many cases, that means "unsafely."
People buy it on Amazon and take it outside without reading the manual
"I think what we're seeing is a transition between hobby and mainstream," Eric Cheng, DJI's director of aerial photography, told me. "We're working as hard as we can [to make sure people fly them safely]. It's an ongoing issue to help educate first-time buyers. It's a dialogue between us and the customers and policy makers. We've been proactive in setting up infrastructure in the Phantom line to help people fly them as safely as possible."
Indeed, the drone has a "return to home" feature on its remote control—if the drone goes out of range or if the pilot gets into a sticky situation, the drone can go fully autonomous and return back to the pilot and land safely. Last week, DJI revealed a parachute system that will automatically deploy if one of its drones falls out of the sky (it hasn't been demoed on the Phantom yet, just on some of the company's other drones so far).
The Phantom comes with flying instructions and warning manuals and a plea that its pilots fly responsibly. It even comes with a "no fly zone" feature that automatically detects areas near airports where the drone shouldn't be flown.
These safety features are a huge step forward, and it's laudable DJI has put them in. And yet, Phantom pilots still end up in in the news seemingly every week.
For one, it's a numbers game. The Phantom is far and away the most popular drone in the country. The company won't release exact sales figures, but Cheng says that Phantom sales increased between 3 and 5 times year-over-year since 2009. The giant B&H Photo store in New York City reports selling as many as 200 Phantoms every day. With that many Phantoms out there, there's bound to be a few bad apples.
Secondly, the Phantom is ready to fly out of the box. That's what's so appealing about the Phantom, but it also goes in direct contrast to how the hobby has operated since its inception.
"It's an ongoing issue to help educate first time buyers," Cheng said. "People buy it on Amazon and take it outside without reading the manual."
Traditionally, if you wanted to fly an RC helicopter, you had to build it yourself, out of a whole bunch of parts. During all these iterations of making the copter, you'd crash it at low altitudes, learning just how hard it is to fly these things. What's more, if you broke it, you'd lose out on lots of money and you'd also lose a lot of the time you put into building it. People were careful.
"The Phantom looks like a well thought out product that wasn't cobbled together from a bunch of parts you found in a hobby store," Michael Perry, a spokesperson for DJI, told me. "It has everything you need to get a camera in the air. We've eliminated a lot of the points of friction that has existed in the hobby in the past. Normal people can put it in the air and have it hover without a lot of practice."
And that's what has made Phantom pilots reviled among parts of the drone community. Without fail, it's possible to check hobbyist forums whenever there's a high-profile incident and find people voicing the opinion that Phantom fliers have ruined the hobby. Some even use "RTF"—ready to fly—as something of a pejorative. They worry that the Federal Aviation Administration will crack down on a hobby that has existed without regulation and without major incident for more than 50 years.
The company gets that worry. "I think if you look back at the introduction of any new technology, there's always going to be a resistance to the popularization of it. You'll always find a resistant group, but in the long term, the group adapts," Cheng said.
In other words, you're starting to see old timers buy up some of DJI's higher-end products that cater to experienced fliers.
But still, the old timers aren't necessarily wrong. It's not the Phantom's fault; it's the reckless pilots'. And someone was bound to make a popular consumer drone, it just happened to be DJI. When a hobby like this goes from niche to mainstream, regulators are going to have to get involved somehow.
The question now, as it has been for years, is how draconian will the FAA crackdown be? DJI hopes the popularity of its drones will actually help sway the FAA to recognize the value of these things.
"We've had dialogue with other countries' regulators to create, snappy consumable guidelines about how you can fly in the country," Perry said. "Obviously first step is a clear set of rules. We've spoken with the FAA, and it's an encouraging conversation, but right now there's still a lot of confusion."
And that, more than anything, remains the problem. Until there are rules, people are going to fly these where they want, when they want, and how they want. And for a couple hundred bucks, who can blame them?