Don't get your kid a drone for Christmas

Let’s start this off by just admitting one thing up front: drones are cool.

I’m not talking about the unmanned surveillance or attack aircraft taking out whoever the number three person in Al-Qaeda is this week. (Though from a tech – geek perspective, those are pretty cool also.) I’m referring to the personal drones, many with cameras installed, which are flying around your neighborhood. The technology certainly looks tempting, doesn’t it? But you probably shouldn’t put one under the tree for your teenager.

Seth Stevenson at Slate explains.

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.

This is hardly the only case of things going awry with these now affordable, high tech little marvels. Some of the more supercharged models can go great distances at considerable altitude, and have been getting into the glide paths at major airports, causing planes to have to divert from their landings. In theory, this shouldn’t cause too much of a problem because the FAA forbids drones from flying at altitudes above 400 feet and requires that any flight within five miles of an airport be reported to the tower in advance. But if you read the experience of Stevenson and his “quick start guide” adventure, how many people – particularly energetic, impatient teens – are going to follow, or even be aware of those rules?

Further, children give in to temptation all too easily, even if they know they are getting up to something naughty. A silent, hovering craft with a camera streaming images back to their laptops or tablets is just going to prove far too tempting if there are neighborhood girls hanging out by the pool. And that’s a rather mild example of the possibilities which this technology presents. Situations like that are going to lead to unpleasant confrontations that you likely don’t want to deal with. There was already one guy in New Jersey who shot down a neighbor’s drone with a shotgun, and the situation could have easily escalated further out of control from there.

Surely the kids can find something better to occupy their time. Those little remote control cars are annoying enough as it is, and I’ve been tempted to wing a brick at them myself from time to time. So yes… get off my lawn. And don’t fly your drone over it either.