It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s—AAAACK!

The unexpected dangers of drones.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I’m dreaming of a drone Christmas. Tiny drones tucked into stockings. Bigger drones beneath the tree. A drone for Dad, another for Junior, a third for your cool tween niece.

Anecdotal reports suggest that drones are topping Christmas lists all over. Why are holiday shoppers so excited? 1) These newer-model aircraft are meant to be far easier to fly than their predecessors. 2) They have cameras, allowing for all manner of creative (or mischievous) projects. 3) Folks just seem to be jazzed ever since we started calling these things “drones.”

Rechristening a “remote control toy helicopter” a “drone” suggests that, soon after unwrapping his present on Christmas morning, your teenage son will be executing lethal missile strikes in Yemen. And indeed there’s been a vaguely menacing edge to a lot of recent drone hype. Consumer drones have lately starred in many a techno-dystopian horrorscape: French authorities freaked out when drones mysteriously appeared above nuclear power plants. A New Jersey property owner riddled a drone with bullets when it encroached on what he considered his personal airspace. Kanye West is afraid that drones might electrocute his daughter.

Despite the new, badass nomenclature, remote control aircraft have been around for decades. I suspected these new drones were still just toys with a scarier name, and that buying one made the user less a slick paramilitary operative and more a dorky model plane enthusiast. Thus my plan, as Slate’s gadgets correspondent, was simply to test out a couple of these gizmos and find out which one would make the best holiday gift.

One of the leading consumer drone brands is DJI, and its Phantom drones are hugely popular, so I tried one of these first. When the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter arrived, I pulled it from its box, screwed on its propellers (as though I were assembling a very small piece of Ikea furniture), and folded open its one-page “Quick Start Guide.” The steps looked straightforward. Thinking I’d run a casual, preliminary experiment—maybe send the thing 10 feet in the air and then immediately land it—I walked to a softball field around the corner from Slate’s New York office. After switching on the remote control and the drone itself, I calibrated the drone’s compass as the guide instructed. All systems go. I fired up its four propellers.

DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter with FPV HD Video Camera and 3-Axis Gimbal.

Now, before I characterize what happened next, I’d like to issue a disclaimer: I am mostly not an idiot, but sometimes it is useful—in my guise as a tech columnist—when I act like one. Why? Because most of us act like idiots at one time or another. We are harried, and distracted, and it’s Christmas morning and our kid wants to fly her drone RIGHT NOW. So we glance at the Quick Start Guide and think, Hey, looks easy, and thusly we wade into a minor catastrophe.

Anyway, here’s what happened. The drone lifted off the ground and, despite all my efforts to control it, ascended to a height of 20 feet before veering straight into the chain-link fence at the edge of the field and wedging itself deeply therein. I had to climb up the fence to retrieve it. It was stuck good.

Perhaps a wiser person would have paused at this point. I did not. Undeterred, I again followed the steps in the Quick Start Guide—calibrating, starting the propellers, nudging the drone into the air with the joystick. The events that followed are seared into my brain like freeze frames from a car accident. The drone zoomed to a height of 50 feet or so, far above the top of that tall chain-link fence I’d been counting on to limit potential damage. The airborne monster did not respond to my frantic jiggling of the joystick, or to my plaintive cries of “Come back!” Instead it rose and rose—and then suddenly rocketed sidewise at alarming velocity. I watched in terror as it flew across a busy street and crashed into the third story of a tall building. It tumbled to the sidewalk with a clatter of broken, scattering plastic.

A very nice woman stood by the wreckage to safeguard it for me as I ran across the street to inspect the wounded drone. Its camera was sheared clean off. Its propellers had snapped. Its battery pack had flown loose and been badly dented. It was pure luck that nobody got hurt. I felt immensely guilty and unspeakably stupid. I genuinely hoped that no witnesses would report me to the cops.

“The most dangerous thing in that box is the Quick Start Guide,” says Peter Sachs, a drone advocate and the founder of the Drone Law Journal. “There should be no such thing. Your experience isn’t surprising—learning from just the Quick Start Guide is inevitably going to result in a crash.” Sachs says any new drone owner should be sure to study basic aeronautics and meteorology, and should initially operate only under the tutelage of an experienced drone pilot in a designated recreational airspace. I did none of that, and, yes, shame on me. At the same time, I’ve a strong hunch my desultory approach will be replicated again and again, in the days following Christmas, by excited drone newbies all over the country. People very rarely choose to study aeronautics when they can look at a Quick Start Guide. We are impatient. We do dumb stuff.

Which—given that these things weigh as much as a steam iron, soar through the skies at 30 mph, and have whirring propellers just hankering to slice through somebody’s cornea—suggests that maybe there ought to be some regulations out there to protect us from ourselves. Can you just fly a drone anywhere? Like, say, smack in the middle of a crowded city? Without any kind of permit?

When I poked around, it seemed like the rules were fuzzy. There are prohibitions on launching drones in national parks and other federal airspace. And the Federal Aviation Administration offers some sensible, long-established guidelines for model aircraft: Don’t fly them higher than 400 feet, don’t fly them within 5 miles of an airport without alerting the control tower, and so forth. Yet most cities and states still have zero regulations that specifically apply to drones. There’s no law specifying, for instance, that I can’t buzz a drone through Midtown Manhattan in the middle of rush hour.

Granted, the legal landscape on this stuff seems to shift by the day. On Nov. 17, the National Transportation Safety Board held that the FAA should be allowed to regulate small consumer drones just as it does jumbo passenger jets. A more recent report suggests that commercial drone operators will soon be required to have pilot’s licenses. It’s not exactly clear yet how, if at all, these new regulations might apply to amateurs.

Attorney Brendan Schulman of the unmanned aircraft systems group (there is such a thing!) at the New York law firm of Kramer Levin is representing drone advocate Sachs and several commercial drone interests—including a $2.2 billion drone investment banking fund—in a legal action against the FAA. The main beef these folks have with regulation is that they feel it could limit profitable commercial uses of drones. And, to be sure, there are many cases in which talented, professional drone pilots can provide tremendous value: search-and-rescue missions for lost hikers, for instance, or aerial reconnaissance over large fires to protect the lives of firefighters.

But after my own traumatic drone crash, I’m more worried about recreational drone pilots who are acting like morons. And here, Schulman and I disagree. He thinks existing laws are sufficient to handle any dicey drone eventualities. “Consumer devices pose hazards all the time,” he tells me. “People are injured by flying baseballs. There are 150 fatal lawnmower accidents a year. We have personal injury laws and property damage laws to deal with this, and any injuries that result from drone use can be resolved within existing legal frameworks.” If I do fly my drone in the middle of Midtown, for instance, I can be arrested for reckless endangerment—as one 34-year-old Brooklyn man was when he crashed a drone last year near Grand Central. Schulman argues that model aircraft have been around for a long time and have posed no special legal problems in the past. (Even when they’ve killed someone—as happened in Shea Stadium in 1979 as part of a model airplane show during halftime of a Jets game.)

People like Schulman and Sachs—who, not just coincidentally, are both drone hobbyists in their spare time—think model planes are akin to bicycles. “You can get on a bicycle and pose a hazard to yourself and others,” says Schulman, “so it’s important to become familiar with their operation, get to know the equipment, and learn from someone. In the same way, we should understand the risks with personal drones but we shouldn’t just treat them like bombs. I don’t think they’re so dangerous that you need some kind of license.”

My experience suggests otherwise. I think drones are more usefully equated with something like mopeds, which are also vehicles that can be piloted at speeds of about 25–30 miles per hour. Mopeds frequently require permitting, especially if the user is under 18. Which makes a lot of sense. Drones can be dangerous. Consider, to raise just one potentially nightmarish scenario: A drone came within a few feet of a passenger jet’s wingtip near JFK airport earlier this month. Next time, it might get sucked into an engine and cause a large-scale disaster.

In general—given their surging popularity, and the likelihood that they’ll soon be in the hands of an increasing number of underqualified pilots—I think we should consider stricter legal limitations on the speed, weight, range, and airspace use of amateur drones. Right now the FAA says anything under 55 pounds, traveling below 400 feet of altitude, can be considered a model aircraft. But imagine a 55-pound object hurtling toward you from the heavens at 30 mph, operated by a sullen 12-year-old. Things we designate as “toys” shouldn’t weigh more than a few pounds and shouldn’t be capable of climbing higher than, say, 150 feet in the air. Otherwise they’re just too hard to control. Even soldiers in the U.S. military have had problems operating their government-issued, 3-foot-long, 4-pound reconnaissance drones, as this hilarious video attests.

I attempted to fly the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ one more time, but I couldn’t coax its propellers to start. I probably broke something important during that violent crash. (By the way, the fact that DJI includes a handful of extra propellers in the box suggests it’s well aware of the potential for mishaps.) Anyway, I found I was relieved not to fly it again. I’d been chastened by it, by what it could do.

But now you’re wondering what you’re supposed to do since you already promised your kid a drone for Hanukkah. Relax, I’ve got you covered. Most of the major consumer drone companies—like the aforementioned DJI, and another firm called 3DR—make serious drones that tend to appeal to the technically minded. But a French company called Parrot makes delightful little drones that are far less intimidating.

Parrot AR Drone 2.

The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 is substantial enough to provide long afternoons of fun even for parents and older kids, yet its slightly gentler speeds and foam propeller guards make it far less scary. Want something cozier still? The Parrot MiniDrone Rolling Spider is a teensy drone that can zip around your living room. Both Parrots let you use your smartphone as a remote control, and they take sharp aerial images that automatically load to your phone’s photo cache, where you can edit them like a Hollywood director using helicopter footage.

Be aware: Even the Parrots still pose some minor hazards. I administered an unintended haircut to a potted plant in the Slate office when the AR Drone’s propellers hovered too close. And an attempt to launch the Spider from my hand resulted in a small slice on my palm. For the most part, though, these are quite suitable for beginners.

Parrot MiniDrone Rolling Spider.

If you want to study aeronautics, lug around a boxy remote, and launch your aircraft into the heavens, get yourself the DJI. It will provide great fun for adults or mature teens willing to put in the necessary prep time and behave responsibly. If, on the other hand, you and your kid want to mess around with a really cool toy, straight out of the box, in the confines of your backyard, get the Parrots.

Or maybe don’t buy a flying drone at all. Have you considered a nice, gravity-bound remote control vehicle?