NEW YORK – Santa's sleigh isn't the only thing flying this holiday season.
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Drones — flying devices that often carry cameras and can be navigated remotely by smartphones or controllers — have "taken off" as popular gifts as novices have become just as interested in the devices as serious hobbyists. The demand has grown as the industry and government are working together to address safety concerns.
Best Buy expanded its selection from one last year to eight different models in stores and five more online because of rising demand. BHPhoto.com now offers 140-plus models online that range from $50.99 to $6500. And Amazon says the Parrot's $160 MiniDrone Rolling Spider and DJI's Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter, which costs about $1,000, have been "popular sellers."
Michael Perry, spokesman for DJI, which makes the popular Phantom 2 Vision+ and new Inspire models, said demand for drones has moved "pretty dramatically out of being a pretty niche field into more of a consumer electronics field."
Will Leverett, 40, from Austin, Texas, bought himself the DJI Phantom 2, and has been using it to take aerial shots of his ranch in Central Texas. Leverett spent $2,700 on the drone and a camera and image stabilizer that goes with it.
"Being able to see the ranch from the air is something that my late dad always dreamed about," said Leverett, which also used his drone to take shots at the World Cup in Brazil. "Now this technology is literally at Best Buy."
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Leverett said he was planning to buy DJI's Inspire for his brother as a Christmas present. It's a drone that can be controlled by two people — one person being the pilot and the other operating the camera — for $3,500.
"It will blow anybody's mind as soon as they get behind the controllers," he said. "Getting up there and seeing a bird's eye view for the first time is inspiring. You see how beautiful everything is from just 150 feet up."
On the more casual side of the sector, Victoria Blevins, 37, from Woodbridge, Virginia, is buying a Parrot 2.0 drone copter that retails for $299 for her teenage son. Her son likes aeronautical engineering, electronics and computers so she considers the drone "his first step in learning flight patterns."
But Blevins did say, though, that safety will be a focus when her son using the device. "He won't be using it unsupervised," Blevins said.
Indeed, safety concerns have grown with the popularity of drones. In Belgrade in October, a drone carrying a banner over a soccer field ignited an on-field brawl. A plane in London's Heathrow airport had a near-miss with a drone in December. And in October an Oregon man pleaded guilty to violating a ban on drones in national parks by flying a one near bison and over Yellowstone's Midway Geyser Basin.
Drone makers say they have put safety measures in place to prevent accident. All drones are recommended for use in large open areas, not near crowded spaces.
DJI said its latest drones have an automatically capped height of 400 feet, even though technically it could go up to 1200 feet. Geosensors also won't let the drones fly close to any major airports. Parrot, which makes the $500 BeBop drone, also ensures drones do not go above 400 feet.
All three of the biggest personal drone makers — DJI, Parrot and 3D Robotics — have formed a coalition to lobby the FAA to help develop standards for personal drone use.
Additionally, on Monday, drone industry officials said they are teaming up with the U.S. government and model aircraft hobbyists to launch a safety campaign. The campaign includes a website — www.knowbeforeyoufly.com — which advises both drone operators of FAA regulations and how to fly their unmanned aircraft safely.
The industry also said it plans to distribute safety pamphlets at industry events and work with drone manufacturers to make sure safety information is enclosed inside the packaging of new drones.