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Drones aren’t new

Stanley the neighborhood boy chases a cat and other uses

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but drones aren’t new.
Rod Machado

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but drones aren’t new. As a kid, I ran with a clan that operated drones. Back then, we called them remote-controlled (RC) model airplanes, and we built them from balsa wood and paper. A little dope was also used in the construction, but we never trusted him enough to let him fly.

Those weren’t very good drones, perhaps because quality control diminished in direct proportion to the amount of mind-altering glue used in their assembly. Nevertheless, our drones did what über-sophisticated drones do today: make noise, terrorize small animals, and provide their operators with hours of fun—until they are carried off by the prevailing westerlies.

Flying RC models today is a lot less risky for youngsters, mainly because the law says youngsters can no longer buy glue. Fortunately, they don’t have to, because drones now come preassembled and ready to fly.

Recently, our little neighborhood boy, Stanley, received a drone for his birthday. When I first heard the buzzing noise, I raced to the window expecting to see a chainsaw drill team in action. Instead, I spied a quadcopter’s grappling hook hovering over the neighborhood cat as Stanley skillfully twisted two tiny chopper sticks on his remote control. I thought, “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.”

If Amazon has its way, a day is coming when you will see drones every day.

On a recent episode of 60 Minutes, Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, spiked the needle on the FAA’s wacko-meter by unveiling the octocopter his company plans to use to deliver books to his customers’ doorsteps. According to Bezos, any product weighing five pounds or less could be delivered within 30 minutes by drone. Isn’t this the perfect solution for those who have the patience to read a book but not wait 24 hours for FedEx to deliver it?

Believe it or not, many people fancy the idea of octocopter book delivery. After all, 24 hours is a long time. This delivery method, however, is not foolproof, especially if little Stanley has a butterfly net. No doubt Stanley’s wall-mounted corkboard eventually will contain the following species: monarch, swallowtail, blue morpho, Amazon octocopter, and painted lady. Then there’ll be the inevitable call to customer service from someone who orders a book and then walks outside to await delivery, only to see a Sikorsky Skycrane fly overhead. No doubt he’ll rant to the agent about how he ordered only one book, not one of everything.

My guess is that the FAA reached Defcon Level 1 at drone containment headquarters when the Wisconsin brewery Lakemaid began delivering beer by drone to fishermen in ice huts. Ice huts apparently inspire quite a thirst, and nothing satisfies that need better than beer that arrives by air.

Of course, the FAA would have none of this and promptly popped the top on Lakemaid’s beer-drone delivery service. The feds say that commercial drone operations are permitted only on a case-by-case basis. No doubt Lakemaid argued that this was exactly how they’d been delivering beer. The booze news has it that this argument didn’t fly with the feds. Lakemaid’s “beer from the sky” service has since gone flat.

It turns out that FAA Advisory Circular 91-57 requires RC operators to always keep their machines in sight, below 400 feet agl, and more than three miles from an airport (read the AC for other requirements and exceptions). It should be clear to everyone that drones can present a serious threat to pilots and cats. Let’s hope the FAA acts wisely as it formulates a new drone operation policy.

One thing is for sure. Despite the prevailing westerlies, drones aren’t going away. Several of our local police agencies are now using them to catch bad guys.

A real win-win situation might be if Lakemaid were to volunteer its out-of-work drones for use in law enforcement. No, I’m not suggesting that beer drones be used to fire Sidewinders or Budweisers. I’m just thinking that criminals will be easier to catch when they see a beer drone tailing their getaway car. After all, what criminal wouldn’t choose to do a little Miller time before doing hard time?


Rod Machado once belonged to a vegetarian motorcycle gang known as the Sprouts.

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