When new technologies burst into our lives, it often takes a while for us to figure out how they fit in. Many skeptics thought they would never want a personal computer or a mobile phone. Now we can’t get along without them. We may be heading down the same road with drones. Not the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that the military uses but the ones you may have seen buzzing around your neighborhood. As civilian drones get smaller, cheaper and easier to fly, they’re finding a niche in homes and businesses. Quadcopters, the newest versions of personal UAVs, have four battery-powered rotors that make them as easy to operate as a radio-controlled toy car. A starter drone like the Hubsan X4 has a low-resolution camera and costs about $50. The JJRC-H9C (about $120) can shoot high-definition video and the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 (about $350) can stream live video and be controlled using a smartphone or tablet. Current regulations say UAVs can't be flown higher than 400 feet and must stay away from airports and aircraft. But drones keep straying into trouble. Last month a man in Washington, DC, crash landed his drone on the grounds of the White House. And organizers of big events like this year’s Super Bowl declared them No Drone Zones. In the US, drones can’t be legally used for commercial purposes until the Federal Aviation Administration adopts a broad set of regulations. Those are expected to be released later this year. Meanwhile UAVs are finding lots of work to do outside the US. In Australia, drones watch for sharks offshore at the popular Bondi beach. And a beach resort in Italy says it will use drones to assist lifeguards and quickly deliver life jackets to swimmers in trouble. In some farm areas, drones are doing fly-over crop inspections and checking on livestock grazing in remote pastures. A drone with a thermal sensor can take a cow’s temperature from the air. Drones deliver small batches of medicine to remote communities in the North Sea and transport tuberculosis test samples in Papua New Guinea. A Drones for Good competition produced proposals that would use UAVs to enter damaged buildings, speed up the delivery of organs for transplant, get first aid items to hikers, skiers or climbers and drop seed pods to plant trees in deforested areas. Back in the US, Amazon is testing drones for delivering packages and news organizations are getting special permission to deploy drones in place of expensive helicopters to photograph fires, traffic accidents and other events. Style maven Martha Stewart is among the many fans of UAVs. She used a drone to shoot bird's-eye photos of her 153-acre farm in New York. In a column she wrote for Time magazine, she said the drone's view of her fields and gardens helped her plan and evaluate her landscaping designs. "Drones can be useful tools," she wrote, "and I am all about useful tools."
I started reporting on gadgets and gear when Atari ruled electronic games and computers used floppy disks. My weekly column ran in the The Louisville Courier-Journal and online at USAToday.com and ABC News.com. I regularly attend CES, the CEDIA home theater convention and other tech events. You can follow my Twitter posts @ricmanning and contact me at email@example.com