What it’s like to fly a drone for the first time
I’m standing in a parking lot somewhere in Colorado. A police officer is strolling around, marking car tires with white chalk. To my left, two construction workers are talking. Before me is an empty railroad track; there’s a residential street just beyond it. In the distance is a large hill topped by a rock reminiscent of a castle—the namesake of the town I found myself in, Castle Rock.
I watched as Kerry Garrison, chief operating officer of MultiCopter Warehouse, carefully removes an object from a protective case and begins assembling it. It seems complicated: a white body with black carbon fiber arms, a series of rotors, a high-resolution camera, several batteries, a pair of remote controllers. As he meticulously puts it all together, the device comes into focus: It’s the DJI Inspire 1, a $2,900 aerial robot—a.k.a. a drone.
Garrison flicks his thumbs down on the joysticks and the Inspire, emitting a few beeps, shoots off into the air. The police officer and construction workers stop what they’re doing, turn, and gaze into the sky at the flying object. It stares right back, the camera on its underbelly directed at them.
Garrison hands me the controller. “Please, don’t crash it.”
With some hesitation, I ease into navigating the Inspire. With a gentle nudge up on the left joystick, the robot climbs higher. For the next few minutes, I fly the drone around the lot, getting a feel for how its mechanics propel it through the air. It’s not unlike the $500 Parrot Bebop that I spent the week flying around my neighborhood. More sophisticated, maybe.
It’s a good thing I didn’t tell Garrison about the week’s activities. My first flight with the Bebop produced something you’d expect to find on America’s Funniest Home Videos. I sat it in my yard, tapped the Take Off button on the screen of my iPhone, and watched as the Bebop hovered just above the ground. I thought I could, if you’ll permit the pun, learn on the fly and skipped reading its instructions. Wrong move: Before I knew it, the Bebop was coming directly at me and crashed into the side of my garage. Fearing the worst, I walked over to it and found it to be intact, ready for another flight. (Phew.)
I gave it a second go after watching a few video lessons, with better results. After a few successful flights, I was confident enough to invite my kids to hide in the backyard while I piloted the Bebop from our front driveway. Watching the video stream from the Bebop’s high-definition (1080p) camera on my iPad, I flew the Bebop over our house and found all three kids in a matter of minutes in a high-tech version of hide-and-seek.
It wasn’t a long game, though: The Bebop has a battery life of only 10 minutes. It’s a bit disappointing, but Parrot softens the blow a bit by including two batteries in the box.
The highlight of my flying time with the Bebop was getting a photo of my father-in-law’s ranch from 492 feet in the air—the highest the Bebop can go. The quality of the photo isn’t as good as I had hoped because the included camera creates a fish-eye effect at the edges of the picture. For most hobbyists, though, it’s more than sufficient.
Drones have created quite a buzz for themselves, and I don’t just mean the loud noises these little machines make from the sky. The recent crash of what appeared to be an older model from DJI on the White House lawn prompted President Obama to urge for regulation on these flying robots.
Back at the parking lot with the Inspire, I ask Garrison what kind of regulation he would like to see from the FAA. There needs to be some regulation so those who fly commercially can secure proper insurance policies, he replies, but not so much that it hurts the fast-growing industry.
On Sunday the FAA published its proposed regulations for commercial pilots. They require pilots to maintain a line of sight on the aircraft, stay under 500 feet, and receive an operator certificate after passing a written test, among other guidelines. For 60 days, the FAA will seek comment on its proposed regulations.
We ease the Inspire back to earth and pack up. Later, Garrison shows me several demo videos he’s recorded and explains how he got into the drone business. “To me, multicopters are about telling a story from a new perspective,” he says. “When it’s done right, it just gives you goosebumps.” His passion was contagious.
It made me think of the time I started using Instagram, the popular mobile photography application. With it, I could take a rather mundane photo, slap a filter over it, and feel like a professional. I started walking around my everyday world thinking about how parts of it would look through my tiny viewfinder—crop this, filter that. Aerial photography gives you a whole new perspective. And the photography bug that bites you is just as strong.
If not stronger: When you grab the controls of a drone, hear its props start spinning, and watch as a flying object moves around based on your commands, you start to feel like a little kid standing before the RC section at a RadioShack. And, to no one’s surprise, after a week of flying around and testing drones, the little kid inside of me can’t wait for the winter holidays next year. And this time, I promise I won’t crash it. Pinky-swear.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.