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2017-01-09 01:02:19
Santa Delivered the Drone. But Not the Safety and Skill to Fly Them.

My dad got a drone for Christmas.My dad lost a drone on Christmas.

— @miss_jordon, on Twitter

If this Christmas was the season of the drone, it was also a time of crashes, losses and tweeted laments. Social media is rich with commentary about fathers (major targets) crashing drones, girlfriends with tiny blades enmeshed in their hair (mothers removed them) and crying children whose favorite present went poof in the sky.

“How would you like it if your laptop flew away?” Shelley Holloway’s husband asked her after he lost his holiday drone. Ms. Holloway, of Clawson, Mich., had posted a note on Nextdoor, the community-based social network, saying that “his Christmas has been ruined ever since.” (Apparently he didn’t like the ribbing.)

Most drones are harmless toys — albeit ones that seem to have a shorter shelf life than a Christmas tree — and can be bought at Amazon or Walmart for under $100. But drones, particularly bigger ones, can cause major damage and injury, especially in the hands of neophytes.

Like birds, drones can be sucked into engines, creating a risk of planes being brought down. There is also a risk of drones themselves falling on people or their property. The Federal Aviation Administration requires a $5 registration for drones over 0.55 pounds, and insurance companies are girding for a wave of drone-related accident claims.

“We’re adamant,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “If a drone is seen in the vicinity of a wildland fire, we will remove our aircraft, which unfortunately can cause the fire to grow exponentially.”

The agency, known as Cal Fire, has adopted the warning “If you fly, we can’t!” It has a fleet of 50 aircraft and 31 million acres to cover. After a drone flew into what was called the Trailhead Fire in Auburn, Calif., last summer, Cal Fire grounded its aircraft for two hours.

About 2.8 million drones were sold in the United States last year, about 1.2 million of them over the holidays, according to the Consumer Technology Association, a lobbying group. As of Dec. 13, just over 500,000 people had registered with the F.A.A. Surely the rest of the owners will be stepping forward soon — if they haven’t already crashed their drones.

“My daughter got a drone from Santa, and its first launch took off and never returned,” Jim Stephens of Orinda, Calif., notified his neighbors on Nextdoor. “If you find a white and orange drone in your backyard or trees, please let me know.”

In an interview, Mr. Stephens said controlling the drone had been harder than he expected. “I should have let her drive it — maybe we’d still have it,” he said. His daughter, Iris, is 6.

Juan J. Alonso, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford who serves on the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone advisory board, suspects that many drone buyers were surprised by the power of their machines — which hobbyists typically fly at 15 m.p.h., but knowledgeable users can nudge up to 40 m.p.h.

“Mostly people bought small drones, up to $500 or $600,” he said. “They’re probably novices who soon exceed capability of the drone or their own capability as a pilot. Most people have zero training.”

Although a drone can go “as high as you want,” Dr. Alonso said, the F.A.A. limits their altitude to 400 feet.

“These are very sophisticated machines,” he added. “We want to make sure people use them responsibly.”

The F.A.A. receives more than 100 reports a month from pilots who complain that drones have flown too close to their aircraft, an agency spokesman said. Drones have injured people and caused power disruptions.

Drones seem “like innocent toys,” said Brad Koeckeritz, the chief of the unmanned aircraft systems division for the Department of the Interior. But last year, his department “had more than 50 encounters with drones on wildfires,” most of them being flown by hobbyists, he said.

“The bottom line is that midair collisions with aircraft involved in low-level flight on a fire or approaching a runway could potentially have fatal consequences,” he said.

On Christmas Day, with Twitter full of drone drama, Faine Greenwood, a researcher on unmanned aerial technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, retweeted messages under the hashtag #dronecrashmas. This was the second year she has “followed the drone-crash beat,” she said. “It’s becoming a major theme on Christmas Day.”

Underlying the humor is concern that “crashing drones on Christmas is indicative of people not taking it seriously enough,” said Ms. Greenwood, who owns five drones and writes about them for Slate. “We need to do a better job of educating them.”

Instead of going to the park, many consumers are flying machines right outside their front doors, without considering wind and pesky trees.

“We’re seeing a convergence of once-futuristic technology with mainstream America,” said Nirav Tolia, chief executive of Nextdoor. Over Christmas week, Nextdoor had 8,709 drone posts, mostly about drones both lost and found.

“It used to be lost cats in a tree,” said Kelsey Grady, head of communications for Nextdoor. “Now it’s drones.”

To improve drone safety, the F.A.A. created an app, B4UFly, and a web page full of tips. Even people flying drones with lights on them must adhere to F.A.A. rules, which include not operating them in the dark, keeping the craft within sight and not flying over groups of people or near airports or other aircraft.

Anthony Melton of Sugar Land, Tex., was playing by the rules when disaster struck.

“Yes, that’s right — another drone lost in the neighborhood,” Mr. Melton said in a Nextdoor post. His son was flying the drone when it was lost and he cried; Mr. Melton was too upset to sleep. Then a neighbor spotted it on his roof, and the crisis ended.

For drones of all sizes, there is a learning curve. Jim Hayes, a Fox Sports reporter, tweeted his slow progress:

Survival time of 2015 Christmas mini drone: 5 secs (Crashed into wall)Survival time of 2016 Christmas mini drone: 3 mins (Lost in park)

“Drones look so really cool — they look like they can fly themselves,” said Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, an industry group. “People forget they’re actually flying an aircraft.”

The technology has entered the mainstream so quickly, Mr. Wynne said, that “education — and, frankly, regulations — are trying to catch up.”

Drone manufacturers warn people about the dangers, but does anyone actually read those lengthy instructions before running out to try the new toy?

“It is fair to say no one should take a drone out of a box and try to figure out how it works by flying it,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president for policy and legal affairs at DJI, the Chinese company that dominates the personal and professional drone market for high-end aerial photography.

DJI’s consumer drones, which sell for $399 to $1,199, have built-in safety measures, including auto-return and landing for when the battery is low, obstacle avoidance and “geofencing,” which prevents a drone from flying near airports, nuclear power plants or other sensitive locations (including anywhere in Washington, D.C.).

But the market is rife with knockoffs, which may lack those features. And “pilot error” is a big problem.

“Dad crashed Julia’s drone into the neighbor’s tree and broke it on the first flight. Merry Christmas!” tweeted @RachelGriffith.

Two hours later, Ms. Griffith updated the Twitterverse: “He got it working again, and immediately got it stuck in the top of a huge tree.”