They are futuristic. They are fun. They unnerve people a bit. And drones are graduating from toy stores to a major innovation for a number of industries.
This is the second year that drones will be one of the hottest Christmas gifts under the tree, and the rush is not slowing down despite the legal regulations they bring. The Federal Aviation Administration projects sales to double from last year to 2.5 million drones sold this year. Another 4.8 million drones will be snapped up in 2017, the FAA predicts, with more than half used commercially.
Drones first gained attention as an ominous weapon of warfare. But lately, they are helping a wide range of users zip to hard-to-reach places. They can deliver emergency medical supplies, monitor crowd control for police and keep roof inspectors safely on the ground while doing their jobs. They can help journalists cover breaking news or show farmers and golf course operators where to water or fertilize across huge stretches of property.
Disney World is sending 300 show drones into the sky every night this month to perform a light-up holiday show, all controlled by a single pilot with a computer. Universal recently applied for a patent to use drones in its theme parks to deliver special effects like confetti. And the recent production of Hairspray Live! was the first of NBC's musicals to use drones to get overhead shots.
Google used drones to deliver Chipotle burritos to the Virginia Tech campus in September. And on Dec. 7, Amazon announced it made its first commercial drone delivery to a shopper in England. It was 13 minutes from click to delivery, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos boasted on Twitter.
Former firefighter and paramedic Ryan English, 36, saw the potential and created FlyMotion Unmanned Systems in Tampa with a partner. In three years, the company has grown so quickly, he said, it recently expanded to a 3,000-square-foot office and warehouse east of Port Tampa Bay. A decent toy drone can cost $100 to $500, but commercial drones like the kind English's company sells cost $5,000 to $100,000.
They have created hundreds of drone systems for industries and government agencies around the country. They film special events and inspect cellular towers, fire stacks and power plants. But it's the public safety aspects that is most exciting, English said.
"Imagine if there was a leak or spill in the Port of Tampa," English said. "We would have to have a hazmat team suit up to go check it out, and that process takes some time. This is where drone deployment comes in."
NASA is working with the industry and the FAA to create a new low-altitude air traffic control system specifically for drones. Experts say such a system will be needed for widespread drone deliveries by Amazon and other companies.
And it will be kids squealing with delight on Christmas morning who will help usher in the future, drone experts say.
"Every Christmas morning that goes on, it becomes less and less of a foreign concept that you can control a flying robot," said Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
If you get a drone for Christmas, you must register the aircraft with the FAA for $5. Penalties could reach $250,000 and jail time.
There are still considerable legal, technological and public perception problems to overcome, said Ryan Calo, a robotics law expert from the University of Washington School of Law.
The drone industry is trying to fight heavy local restrictions, fearing state regulations that vary greatly.
"It's amazing that people are being required to register a toy," Calo said. "All toys are potentially dangerous. You could hit someone in the head with a chessboard."
The FAA disagrees. When drones fly anywhere in the nation's airspace, they automatically become part of the U.S. aviation system, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said. Reports of drones flying near planes and helicopters have increased in two years, the FAA reports. The agency now receives more than 100 such reports each month.
"Safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system is one of the FAA's top priorities," Bergen said. "Flying drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous."
Waite, a former Tampa Bay Times employee, had to get a light sport aircraft license in order to keep teaching students about using drones in journalism. That rule has been relaxed, but you still have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test to obtain an FAA remote pilot airman certificate.
The rules are looser for so-called "hobby" fliers, but hobbyists cannot operate within 5 miles of an airport without permission from air traffic control. Drones must always be kept in sight during flight.
"Society often moves along much faster than courts and regulators do," Waite said.
Just two years ago, airport security agents would regularly pull Waite and his teaching drones aside for intense security checks. These days, he often gets stopped by agents, but it's for advice on gifts for their kids.
"This will be the second year that drones will be a great Christmas present, and that means that more people have seen them, they know what they look like and are less and less afraid of them."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at email@example.com. Follow @SharonKWn.