Opinion: 700,000 drones sold this year, but it only takes one to mess up a firefighting operation

A consultant holds a drone by firm HiTec during the first-ever Drone Expo in Los Angeles last December. Since then, consumer drone sales have soared - and are still climbing.

A consultant holds a drone by firm HiTec during the first-ever Drone Expo in Los Angeles last December. Since then, consumer drone sales have soared - and are still climbing.

(MARK RALSTON / AFP/Getty Images)

From the news reports over the past year, it may seem as if everyone and their uncle has a drone. But even though sales numbers have skyrocketed in the last few years, drones -- or unmanned aircraft systems -- are still pretty uncommon.

The Consumer Technology Assn. estimates about 700,000 drones will be sold this year – about 400,000 of them in November and December -- everything from upscale DJI Phantoms to the cheapo models that it seems every retailer has stocked up for the holiday buying season. That’s a pretty big jump from the 430,000 drones sold in 2014.

But still, relatively small -- less than 1% of the market. Drones didn’t make the CTA’s top 10 list of top tech products sold during this year’s Black Friday week, while smartwatches did make the cut. In fact, drones are in the same consumer stage that TV was in the middle of the last century, when every home did not have 2.3 sets and the folks who did have one were instantly popular with their neighbors and extended families.


The key difference, though -- and it is a big one -- is that each one of these flying robots has outsized potential for mischief compared with other tech products like TVs, headphones and tablets.

It takes only one errant drone to, for example, shut down an aerial firefighting operation and help the fire spread. Only one to knock out power for hundreds of people. Only one to interrupt a police investigation. Let’s see a video game console do that.

Now there are more than a million consumer drones out there, and a growing number of reports of drones coming too close to passenger planes. And even more next year. The CTA projects sales of consumer drones to grow 57% in 2016. The popularity of this extremely neat technology is why the Editorial Board is pushing hard on regulation. Because of these relatively few, though pretty serious, incidents the public is understandably nervous about drones. Without the right controls in place, this technology that has so much potential will have a very bad rep.

What will be made all the more challenging because what we think of as drones today will continue to evolve and be applied in unlimited aways. Such as home security drones that patrol your property line. Or personal vanity drones that follow you around to record your fabulousness. There’s already one, the Nixie, in development. Or medical drones that visit patients’ homes to deliver medicine or administer health tests. The possibilities seem endless.

Our homes and domestic life could also be colonized by drone spinoffs. Roomba already sells robots that clean your floors, pools and gutters (the oddly named Looj), how long before it has one that flies around the house sucking up dust, zapping bugs, cleaning ceilings and walls? Or a drone walking dogs? I’ve been hoping for something like that since I saw the Wallace and Gromit short animation “The Wrong Trousers.”

Come to think of it, there was a lesson in that film that’s relevant now: Those trousers went wrong only while in the hands of a bad operator. If not for a wicked penguin disguised as a chicken (a wicken?), everyone in the film might have had this wonderful new technology improving their quality of life.

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