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Hoverboards, Drones, Airport Bans, And Battery Safety

On Saturday, December 19th, I posted a local TV news report that, in essence, stated hoverboards and unmanned aircraft, aka drones, are not being allowed in the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood airport. The report was filed by NBC6 Investigator Willard Shephard. The link to that report can be found here.

Within the embedded video, the following statement seemed to immediately become a point of controversy from “drone” enthusiasts on a variety of Facebook user groups:

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 11.16.18 AM
Screen Grab: NBC6

“These [drones] are not allowed at the airport in any way, shape or form, whether they are flying or coming through your checked luggage,” said Greg Meyer with the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. “So while it’s not a prohibited item the airlines are not allowing these on the planes.”

In my own words, I stated my reaction to the news report, “However, it came as news to me that at least one major airport has banned unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones from airplanes.”

It seemed that some who visited this site were quite vocal on various Facebook user group threads and felt I should take immediate action and remove this story from this website. These detractors failed to understand that while I was not the person making this claim and my story clearly provided the proper attribution of the source, that I was not the one responsible for creating turmoil in the unmanned aerial vehicle industry.

Yeah, let’s shoot the messenger.

We live in a day and age where information spreads quickly. While we know not to believe everything we read or view online, since this story did originate from well known news organization, it seemed that it was important to provide coverage of this story. My reasoning is simple and based on the opinion that posting these types of reports is a method of bringing them to the attention of industry professionals who can determine if this story is true or false and have the contacts that allow them to get this situation addressed at the highest level.

Let’s face it, suppose this specific airport does have the authority to independently make this type of decision, this is valuable information to those planning a trip to or from this area. If it proves to be false, let’s hope that it’s quickly addressed and extinguished. Of course, as soon as I’m made aware of an update to this story, I’ll do my best to make sure the record is set straight.

Because this this site has no financial ties to the subjects covered, it gives me, as the Editor, much leeway in providing coverage and opinions on a variety of topics. Yes, I could chose to cover only the stories that highlight the positive aspects of unmanned aerial vehicles, but, in reality, sparking conversations on the many topics surrounding this growing industry is a good thing.

Can I verify that the source interviewed in the NBC6 piece provided accurate information? No. But, can I document where the story was first published? Yes, and I did. Can I document that the person interviewed was knowledgeable in this field? No. Can I tell you that this story appeared on the South Florida airwaves and the reporter has a history as an aviator and is a seasoned reporter? Yes. Is this a situation where quite possibly where there’s smoke there’s fire? Yes.

I use this “smoke” statement as this could quite possibly be the motivation for this “airport” story. It’s no secret that a popular holiday gift is a battery operated, wheeled device commonly referred to as a hoverboard. While hoverboards rose to popularity seemingly overnight, due to the videos posted online showing the potential of fire dangers, they have quickly disappeared from numerous retailers and were banned by various airlines. This video published on November 30, 2015 shows a potential issue of these hoverboard-type devices:

In fact, the hoverboard has achieved what may be interpreted as the ultimate slam and that’s a parody on NBC’s Saturday Night Live on Saturday, December 19, 2015:

Does this mean that all hoverboard products will explode? No. How is a potential purchaser supposed to know which of these products is built to the highest quality standards?

CNET produced a report addressing this question and it’s worth watching:

Now I’ll ask, what does a hoverboard and an unmanned aircraft have in common and what’s their relationship to this story?

Simply stated, both product categories were mentioned in the NBC6 news story, they both used a type of Lithium based rechargeable battery and both come from factories located in China. Why is the China factory connection important? The answer lies in something that any user of unmanned aerial vehicles should be aware of and that’s Quality Control.

With so many manufacturers providing low cost hoverboard-style models that look nearly identical to the higher quality models and with a growing assortment of “copters” available, how is the consumer supposed to know which models will deliver the safest experience? Should price be the only determining factor? I use this comparison to the copter industry in that users have no way of knowing the safety standards of the some of the batteries and/or charging devices that are used with various copters. Heck, even the best known brand names are still having difficulties delivering products that are as reliable as we would like to expect for a product in that price range.

Let’s face it, as many who fly unmanned aircraft already know, not all batteries that power these devices have proven to be reliable. I’ve read numerous user reports on how the LiPo batteries found in some unmanned aircraft can operate in a manner that could be considered unreliable and the source of potential problems. Another factor to consider is the availability of third party batteries that are difficult if not impossible to determine from the factory authorized battery. Understanding that LiPo batteries can be volatile, how do we as consumers know which brands are manufactured in the highest quality manner? Does this mean it’s best to only purchase batteries directly from the manufacturers? And, does an OEM manufacture the included battery or, based on demand, are they outsourcing them to various third parties?

Maybe it’s time the copter manufacturers speak up and clear the air on this subject.

While I’m one who prefers to support a local dealer over the megastores, I for one cannot tell if the battery that is being offered for sale is an OEM approved product or if it came from a third party. I also cannot tell by looking at it if was built to a high quality standard and if it will be safe to use after multiple recharging/discharging cycles.

Considering the rapid pace these batteries are rolling off the production lines of foreign factories, if the NBC6 story of banning these devices from the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood airport does prove to be true, can we pass blame onto the airports or airlines for taking the cautious approach? Is it reasonable to believe the underlying theme of the NBC6 airport check point story is that passenger safety is the priority over transporting potentially volatile products? When something is questionable, is it wrong for them to take the cautious approach? My opinion is as follows: If this story is true, while this could be an inconvenience for those traveling with these products, I’ll opt for a safe flight every time.

Other questions to ask are: Just how forthcoming and proactive are the copter manufactures in assuring the consumers the batteries it sells are built to the highest safety standards? Are they providing the correct information on proper battery usage that is easily understandable by the first time buyer? Are they including chargers that provide for safe and easy methods of charging and discharging the battery for proper storage when not in use? Are they fully testing new models and software and firmware upgrades prior to releasing these updates to the public?

As we know, at this moment there’s a bit of confusion and frustration surrounding the use of recreational unmanned aircraft and much of this is due to the FAA’s recent announcement of a unmanned aircraft registry that is expected to open to the public momentarily. While I will reserve my opinion on this registry until I go “hands-on” with the website and view the actual information that is required to complete this new requirement, I will say that personally, I am not opposed to having some sort of registry of these vehicles. After all, upfront the FAA stated its goal was to be able to connect a specific aircraft to its owner. Is there more to this plan the FAA has yet to reveal? Maybe. But, It seems at this point they are only asking for information that is already accessible online with a quick search. Yes, I think it’s questionable the DOT and FAA are asking minors to register and that fact in itself opens this program to scrutiny. I’ll add that I think its plan has numerous flaws, but due to complaints and extensive news coverage of just a few rogue users, they had to do something and start somewhere.

In a perfect world, the users of these devices would fly them in a safe and responsible manner and follow the once voluntary guidelines setup by the FAA. As we know while the majority of users of unmanned aerial vehicles do so in a common sense manner, there are some who have possibly taken away some of our freedoms by flying in what many would deem an unsafe manner and then posting their exploits online for all, even Government officials, to see.

I enjoy flying my copters and I hope the rules continue to be reasonable. But I only guess they will only remain as reasonable as the one who is holding the controller.

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