Cage of Drones

Demos, glitches and crashes at the National Drone Show.

Another performer gets ready to go on.

They had me at “Drone Flying Cage.” I saw the event advertised as the centerpiece of the National Drone Show, held last week at the Washington, D.C. convention center, and buzzed right over.

It seemed cruel to confine the little things behind bars, even an enclosure as open and accessible as this 30-foot-wide cage made of light fabric mesh. The tiny stature and comic-book shapes of the drones made them seem better suited to a petting zoo than to a jailed airspace in an exhibit hall.

But the precaution turned out to be wise. In my short time at the cage I saw five drones fly, and all five failed, with issues ranging from annoying glitches to a spectacular crash. To be fair, the cage itself limited the operators’ ability to recover from a problem, making this type of flying possibly more perilous than flying in an open field, for both the operator and the drone. High ceilings in a convention center deliver unexpected air currents, and the frequency of demonstrations at a trade show mean that drones may fly without a full charge of battery.

No humans were harmed in the filming of these demonstrations.

Brian Grant of Yuneec Electric Aviation flew the company’s H920 and Typhoon Q500 4K models. Yuneec says that users can “open the box and fly” the machines, which start at $1,299 (the configuration he showed cost $7,000). Cute little things. But Grant couldn’t show the audience its video feed because it lacked the right audiovisual connection to equipment in the exhibit hall. And because he couldn’t get a reliable GPS signal in the convention center, Grant flew the craft manually, bringing more bounce to the flight path.

Eric Jameson of Stampede presented the xFold line of UAVs, which go for about $20,000. Jameson calls them “the big guys,” and the machines are comparable in size to a child’s tricycle. The xFold model flew well until it didn’t. See the last 30 seconds of this video.

Fortunately for Jameson, the most expensive component onboard—the camera—had not been attached for this demo, and “the big guy” was quickly back in business. Most drones sold to consumers today come with spares for the parts most likely to snap off in a hard landing, beginning with propellers.

Cage shows notwithstanding, consumer drones should only be flown outdoors, well away from people and obstacles. Chances are you’ll see one soon in the wild. The FAA figures another million will be sold by retailers in time for Christmas. Or you can always build your own.

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