Drone sales soar as fans shrug off new regulations

Over the holidays, drones flew right off store shelves – their sales apparently immune to the regulations announced by the Federal Aviation Administration four days before Christmas.

By year’s end, Americans welcomed home about 1.1 million new drones, according to the Consumer Technology Association. That number compares with 450,000 in 2014 and a paltry 128,000 in 2013.

Over three months, Huntington Beach dentist Viet Ho became responsible for hundreds of those 2015 sales at his fledgling Fountain Valley store – the only one in Orange County that offers nothing but drones.

“It was absolutely nuts,” Ho said. “Our biggest problem was running out of inventory.”

Ho opened a Drones Plus franchise in a strip mall on Newhope Street in September.

His small shop resembles a cellphone store, featuring display items rather than shelves stocked with merchandise. It carries a range of drones – from $40 toys to the $5,000 DJI Inspire 1 Pro, equipped with a sophisticated camera.

Founded in Las Vegas two years ago, Drones Plus already has 13 locations in the U.S. and two in Canada.

“It’s a great investment,” Ho said of his store. “Drones are the future.”

Ho joined that future a little late, purchasing his first drone – a $2,500 DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter – last February. But when the bug bit, it bit big.

“A week later, I brought it with me on a vacation in Dubai,” he said. “I took pictures and videos and edited them on my MacBook. I was astounded by the quality.”

Ho shrugs off the advent of government regulations – just as he finds alarmist some of the fears about privacy violations.

“I agree that there should be regulations regarding privacy,” Ho said. “But cellphone cameras can invade privacy as well.”

Studies indicate that most Americans are indeed worried about privacy issues surrounding drones. In a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Institute, 63 percent of respondents said a massive proliferation of drones would be “a change for the worse.”

“The broad takeaway is that the desire to have control over personal space resonates with a large number of people,” said Aaron Smith, associate director of research for Pew.

A bigger concern for the FAA is that the small, remote-controlled aircraft could interfere with planes and helicopters. Commercial airline pilots reported more than 1,300 close encounters with drones over a 10-month period last year, according to the agency.

On Dec. 21, the FAA announced new rules requiring owners of recreational drones to register them in a national database. Owners must put registration numbers on their drones and carry proof of registration when they operate the devices.

“Registering a drone is like registering a car,” Ho said. “Cars can be dangerous, too. That’s why you take classes and get a license to drive. I don’t think the drone community has a problem with rules and regulations.”

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat, wants California laws to go well beyond registration. After Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed her first attempt at a drone bill last year, she introduced a fine-tuned version on Jan. 13.

If passed, the bill would restrict the use of drones near private property, parks and public infrastructure such as bridges, hospitals, power plants and oil refineries. Drones could not be operated within 5miles of an airport and 1,000 feet of a heliport.

“It’s sort of the Wild West,” Jackson said of the drone industry. “I’m trying to tame that Wild West by setting some limitations and requirements that recognize privacy and safety. Ninety-nine percent of drone users are responsible, but we need basic rules for the 1 percent who don’t use good judgment and create life-threatening situations.”

Still, Jackson allowed, “Drone technology is exciting and innovative. We don’t want to get in the way of its positive applications.”

Videographer David Oneal promotes those positives through his Web-based thatdroneshow.com and by organizing drone demonstrations.

“There are a lot of myths about drones falling out of the sky and drones spying in bedroom windows,” the Garden Grove resident said. “Basically, people are afraid of people.”

Oneal, whose clients have included Honda and Kia, uses drones to shoot advertisements and commercials.

“A couple of years ago, we were renting big cranes for this kind of work,” he said.

He predicts that drones soon will be drafted for rescue missions.

“Floods, earthquakes, a missing child – you can see a lot more from 70 feet up in the air,” Oneal said.

Most of Ho’s customers are hobbyists, not professionals, he said. And as with all cutting-edge technology, the recreational drone industry is evolving at a fast pace – soaring in new directions even since he became involved last fall.

“Drone racing is the next big thing,” Ho said.

Many hobbyists are looking to build their own drones for races, he added, so he has started stocking kits that run from $300 to $500. Ho also plans to offer flight training classes.

Despite all those plans, Ho keeps his store in perspective – viewing it as an extension of his avocation.

“My store is more like a hobby,” he said. “The profit margin is not much. Dentistry is still my bread and butter.”

Contact the writer: sgoulding@ocregister.com

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