Game of Drones

Few technologies trigger more fervent technolust today than these remote-controlled gadgets.

Multirotors, Quadcopters, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles… whatever you call them (and there’s intense debate over that question), the popularity of remote-controlled aircraft is taking off. Gear that used to cost six figures can now be had for a few thousand or even a few hundred bucks. and drone technology has advanced to the point that even a small child could fly one.


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Photo courtesy of Parrot

In Hawai‘i, there’s already a passionate community of pilots who are excited at the possibilities.

John Johnson of One Breath Photography specializes in underwater photography, but he saw the potential for drones right away. “For a photographer, $1,300 is the price of a nice lens,” he says. “For the same amount of money, you can get the UAV, and the camera, and open up a whole new world of photography … it’s a no-brainer.”

“Drones are a definite game changer,” says Nick Turner, co-founder of Hilo-based Droneflow and a researcher at the UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Lab.

“We no longer have to depend on big satellite companies for imagery, or contracting expensive flights with manned aircraft,” he explains. “Now we can fly where we need to, and as often as we need, to at a fraction of the cost.”

Ringo Javier of Videoworkz Hawaii has been flying radio-controlled aircraft for more than 25 years. It was only last year that he built and flew his first quadcopter.

“Technology just made its quantum leap,” he says. “State-of-the-art electronics in one small package, cost effective and easy to fly, it’s available to anyone and believe me you can get hooked up easily.”

Indeed, some of the most popular drones can be bought with one click on eBay. From palm-sized playthings from China priced at $50, to the Parrot AR drones you can get at Sharper Image or Brookstone for $200, to the DJI Phantom 2 Vision models priced from $800 to $1,600, there’s a way to get airborne for every budget.

More serious enthusiasts custom build their own aircraft, with more serious costs.

Of course, federal and local rules loom over this new frontier as well. Right now, the FAA says drones can only be flown as a hobby, like other remote-controlled aircraft, but not commercially. So while people in every industry—from real estate to architecture to wedding photographers—can imagine ways to make money, they can’t just yet.

And earlier this year, the Hawai‘i legislature was considering a bill that would restricted the use of drones to law enforcement. Fortunately, local enthusiasts came together and testified, and the bill was allowed to die.

“The fear amongst hobbyists is that regulation will be overly burdensome, but there has to be safety regulations that keep novices with more money than experience from endangering lives and property,” Johnson says. “I believe in a happy medium and I hope the FAA can find one.”

And Hawai‘i is an especially good place to be, for those interested in exploring what drones can do. The Aloha State is actually one of a handful of places designated by the FAA to host official drone testing ranges.

Until new rules are in place, however, it seems the sky is the limit.

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