"So what does it do?" my wife asked, joining us as we stared at the drone hovering a few feet off the ground.
"This!" I replied.
"So you just fly it around and take videos?"
Now, to be fair to recreational drones, me, my seven-year old son and the two other guys with us all thought that flying a drone over the lake and taking videos of it was pretty cool. And a lot of people have made a lot of money selling dumb toys to men, so my wife's skepticism alone isn't enough to say that recreational drones don't have a secure future.
But then I read this story where Californian Eric Wasmer became the first drone operator to be arrested for interfering with efforts to fight a forest fire, and it only reinforced why I'm so bearish on the future of recreational drones.
Drones can be fun, and commercial drones have tremendous applications and potential (which is why the FAA began wisely laying out ground rules for how drones can be used commercially).
More trouble than they're worth?
But recreational drones offer far too little upside and far too many regulatory problems and liability to truly take off (pun intended). Why?
- The market for people who want to fly drones just for fun ultimately isn't that substantial. In theory, with a low enough price point, anyone could buy one. Anyone could also buy a ham radio, a model airplane, and a model train set, but most people don't.
- The number of jurisdictions who can regulate recreational drones is extremely substantial: anyone from local park districts to towns, airports, municipalities, counties, states, the FAA, DOT and more. It's hard enough for Uber to take on taxi regulators or Airbnb to take on housing regulators. Imagine a non-core product like recreational drones having to take on this many levels of government at once. Not an easy fight.
- The personal liability risk comes on top of the regulatory risk. Just like Eric Wasmer found himself under arrest for flying his drone in the middle of a California forest fire, and if you can't fly your drone near something that's actually happening, what's the point of having a drone in the first place? Drone operators bear the risk of liability for invading a homeowner's private airspace, for interfering with airplanes, interfering with public events and pretty much anything else a drone operator would want to check out.
Drones will eventually become ubiquitous in delivering packages, helping first responders deal with emergencies, and enhancing our economy in ways we probably can't even imagine.
But it's important not to confuse commercial drones and recreational drones. So here's a good rule of thumb--one has a future and the other doesn't.