Recreational drone industry taking off

From Friday night fights to aerial photography, recreational unmanned aerial vehicles are being used more and more for recreation.

Barely weighing in at two pounds, an insect-like machine waits in one corner, while a hefty propeller-laden box sits across the ring. The clock counts down while the announcer eggs on each opponent. The buzzer goes off, and the two very dissimilar machines take flight. A crowd of dozens has gathered in this San Francisco warehouse to watch this week’s Game of Drones.

It all started three years ago when two self-proclaimed robotics geeks decided to turn their drone-fighting hobby into a business.

“On Friday nights we would gather, and build stuff, and one thing led to another and then ultimately we were crashing our creations into each other, and that just became a lot of fun,” said co-founder Eli D’Elia.

Game of Drones sells recreational unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly referred to as UAVs — but they’re not quite like the sinister-looking military drones that dominate public perception. Founded by D’Elia and Marque Cornblatt, the company manufactures, sells, hosts and promotes all things drone-related. Its signature model, “Hiro” is colorful, affordable, and most importantly, built to take a beating.

While the company started in 2011 to sell its combat-proof drones to like-minded enthusiasts, its patrons are anything but homogenous. From cattle herding to racing, the world recreational drone play is ever expanding and the growing attendance at events, like the weekly drone fights, point to the trend.

“The first time we did it, it was just us, and by the second or third time it was fifty or sixty people,” said Wayne de Geere, a drone enthusiast who is building his own drone with his son from scratch. “It’s almost like the drone version of the Homebrew Computer Club,” a reference to the tech meet-up of amateur computer developers in the 1970s that helped spark the personal computer revolution.

It’s an eclectic mix. At the drone fight, ages ranged from 8 to well over 60. “Remember there are no age limits,” the referee announced during one of several high-energy matches. Some attendees were seasoned fighters. Others were tinkerers. Some were there to quietly explore if the technology could be used in their business. Even reality television star-turned television host, Audrina Patridge, was there to film the event.

While the negative media coverage of government and military drones has some people drawing their blinds, members and friends of Game of Drones — the name, a take-off of the violent HBO series “Game of Thrones” — gather with enthusiasm and UAVs in-hand.

Mike Campo, an experienced real estate broker, says he likes the technology because it’s both complex and accessible. “I like to try drones myself, I do aerial photography,” Campo said. “You can basically send it up, and let it stay there and take a picture.”

The younger crowd is just as enthusiastic. Wayne de Geere’s 8-year-old son, Deane, whose feet barely brush the floor as they swing from the folding chair he sits in, said it’s the action that’s drawn him to the sport. “I like that there’s a lot of destruction,” he said with the confidence of someone twice his age, “I’m building my own.”

Fourteen-year-old Kyle Ettinger has already won a number of fights with his DIY-drone. It’s a relatively colossal piece of equipment, complete with a sturdy wood frame and a netting to entangle his opponents.

Ettinger’s interest in the drone world began when he was working at a local hobby store. He said the moment he saw the impressive piece of technology he thought to himself, “I just had to have one, so I went out and bought one, and I’ve been loving drones ever since.”

And his dad couldn’t be prouder. “He’s passionate about it,” said Gary Ettinger, Kyle’s dad, with a glowing smile. “When he’s passionate about something he’s going to be learning something. It’s all positive; it’s just amazing.”

It’s clear that the technology is no longer reserved for CIA operations and Syfy channel B-movies. A simple Google shopping search yields mini models priced as low as $20 from sellers like Toys ‘R’ Us and just under $400 from Brookstone.

D’Elia says the phenomenon isn’t confined to the U.S. by any means. A good portion of his sales are international, with customers ordering from as far away as Australia. And D’Elia says the international market is growing even faster than the U.S. market.

He thinks the negative press and public perception about drones in the United States is undercutting domestic sales potential. Just last year, the San Jose community was up in arms after discovering the San Jose Police Department had quietly acquired its own UAV.

Still, he feels the interest in the technology will soon outweigh the public’s fear. And the positive uses of drones go far beyond policing or surveillance. “The drone space is where computers were in the early ’90s,” D’Elia said, adding that drones are well on their way to being widely used in almost every facet of life.

“We’re going to push ahead and innovate on every level,” D’Elia added. “I’m in competition with the rest of the world, and like it or not America is going to catch up.”

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