Drone On

How our obsession with flight is changing work and play

John Hansen flies his drone at Fred G. Bond Metro Park in Cary. A longtime photographer, he jumped at the chance to take pictures from a new perspective when drones came on the market.

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to fly in a “Star Wars” pod race, zoom over the streets of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts on a broom or turn that recurring dream that you can fly into reality?

All of those flights of fancy come close to being realized from behind the controls of an unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone.

From work to play to extreme racing, drones continue to soar in popularity as an age-old fascination with flight brings exciting new possibilities and fun to big kids and little kids alike.

Gaining a new view

A photo of John Hansen at five years old shows the 60-year-old Cary resident holding his first camera — a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. Growing up with National Geographic and Life magazines, a romantic and curious desire to tell stories through pictures took root. An interest in gas-engine planes soon followed. Today, all of Hansen’s childhood fancies have come together to propel him into the next chapter of his life.

“Flight, photography and technology all came together for me when drones came along,” said the former News and Observer photo editor.

By the Numbers:

  • $1 billion: Projected value of U.S. drone sales by end of 2018, according to Statista.
  • 3 million: Number of drones sold in 2014, according to Business Insider Intelligence.
  • 10 million: Number of drones expected to be sold in 2018, according to Business Insider Intelligence.
  • $12 billion+: Projected value of U.S. drone sales by end of 2021, according to Business Insider Intelligence

What started as a hobby with a $20 drone — which he flew into a tree — has steadily grown. Last year for his birthday, Hansen passed up a new recliner in favor of a fancy DJI Mavic Pro. Equipped with vision sensors, stabilization technology and more, the sophisticated flying camera provides endless hours of exploration.

“After that wet snow that fell this year covered the trees, I took it out and flew up and down the street,” he said. “It looked like a magical scene from Harry Potter.”

That birds-eye view of the landscape has opened up a new world to Hansen’s keen photographic eye.

“The perspective you can get with a drone is amazing,” exclaimed Hansen.

These days you are likely to find him flying around Bond Park or other Cary landmarks testing new moves and flight patterns.

You don’t have to have a license to fly for fun, but Hansen is ready to turn his hobby into a profession as an aerial photographer. He recently got his remote pilot certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Close to flying

Derek Havener, 18, also has big drone dreams.

When the Garner High School senior was 14, his first drone arrived under the Christmas tree. He flew it around outside his house, crashed it through the neighbors’ window, fixed it and kept flying. That first drone was a fairly inexpensive toy, but it got Havener hooked.

Derek Havener, 18, flies his drone in Sanford. Here he is wearing specialty goggles that allow him to watch a live video stream from his drone camera.

“Crashing is part of the fun, building it is half of the fun, and flying is also fun. You crash, you break, you fix, you fly,” he explained. “To build something from nothing and do something awesome with it is a challenge, but it’s so cool.”

Christmas 2016 brought Havener an upgrade, this time a racing drone he had his eye on.

A local racing group, the Raleigh Rotor Racers, has been meeting informally at Dix Park for about five years, but recently the local group became part of a global drone racing league called MultiGP. More than 130 members from around Wake County race about once a month in Sanford.

Havener got his AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) certification and went to his first race this year. Equipped with his race drone and specialty goggles, which allow him to receive a live video stream from his drone camera, he raced through an obstacle course peppered with gates and flags.

“I always dreamed about flying, and this is as close as I can get,” said Havener. “When you put the goggles on and start flying, you forget everything around you. You feel like you are one with the drone, and that’s a really cool feeling.”

Now that there is a racing circuit, Havener wants to make drone racing his full-time career.

Hansen’s drone flies over downtown Cary, snapping picturesque shots of the Cary fountain and Cary Arts Center on Academy Street.

The Sky’s the Limit

The growing presence of drones in everyday life and business prompted Cary lawyer Ashley Felton, co-owner of Felton Banks PLLC, to add drone law to her practice and start the local Meetup group Droning On About Drones.

Basic drone laws for recreational users:

  • Fly during daylight hours
  • Fly within line of sight
  • Fly below 400 feet
  • Do not fly over crowds
  • Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport

Source: Federal Aviation Administration

Nearly 300 recreational and commercial users meet to share ideas and information on the legalities surrounding flying drones in the area. While North Carolina was one of the first states to enact drone legislation, laws are still evolving on the local and federal level.

“Right now it’s still heavily restricted, mainly because of privacy concerns. But I think as both recreational use becomes more mainstream and people see the great potential in using drones, some of those rules will be relaxed,” said Felton.

Drones are quickly evolving into an invaluable tool in many industries. Equipped with radar, heat sensors and infrared lights, drones are taking over some high-risk jobs.

An early morning drone flight yields a panoramic view of the Cary Arts Center and a bus heading to school.

Drones are already being used:

  • To perform security checks at prisons.
  • To spot sharks in the ocean.
  • To assist search-and-rescue efforts during hurricanes and other natural disasters.
  • To monitor crops. By the end of 2019, more than 75 percent of farmers are expected to use drones.

Retail giant Amazon is also testing package delivery via drone. Although the law doesn’t allow it yet, Felton believes it’s just a matter of time.

“They’ll figure it out,” said Felton. “The options are endless as long as you follow guidelines.”

Drones are perfect for capturing large area shots from above, just like this one of boats sailing on Bond Lake at Fred G. Bond Metro Park in Cary.

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