Read this before you buy that $20 drone for Christmas

Is it a drone, or an infrared induction helicopter ball?

A test flight of a toy drone inside The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017.
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A test flight of a toy drone inside The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017.

Have drones and flying objects in general not just jumped the shark but flown over in this year’s holiday shopping season?

Drones are seemingly everywhere on stores’ online sites, from Walgreens and Walmart to JC Penney and Home Depot, where a foldable pocket selfie drone goes for about $50.

Estimates as of August showed almost 3 million personal and commercial drones will be produced before the end of the year, 39 percent more than in 2016.

Prices for introductory “starter” drones hover around $20, even before Black Friday’s discounts. At Amazon, drones with cameras run as low as $31.

Toy drones on Amazon start at just under $20. Among toy vendors, Toys “R” Us has a sizable online drone selection.

Last week, the nonprofit organization World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH) presented its Top 10 list of dangerous toys for the holidays for media at a Boston children’s hospital.

The group has released an annual list for more than 40 years. This year it made history: This is the first year a drone has made in on the group’s list.


Along with fidget spinners, whose small parts can be choking hazards, and a Wonder Woman sword, there was Marvel’s Spider-Man drone, with its rotating blades.

“This year we saw drones in general becoming more part of the culture,” Joan Siff, president of the toy safety group, said in a phone interview with The News Tribune.

Manufacturers, she noted, “have figured out there’s a new market to be sold as toys.”

“It may be new technology, but it has familiar potential hazards,” she said, noting that in this case it’s a flying hazard, with blades.

“A toy that goes in the air with spinning rotors with a warning on the box — that’s a toy to avoid,” Siff said.

The Toy Association defended the toys on the safety group’s list, including the drone, and called the list “needlessly frightening.” It maintained that people need to use common sense in the purchases.

“This holiday season, whether shopping for toy drones or any other toy or item a child will play with, parents and caregivers should always check and follow the age-grading on toy packaging to make sure it is appropriate for their kids,” the trade group said in an emailed statement.

Still, the association noted, you can’t always go just by age recommendations.

“Age-grading has nothing to do with how smart a child is; it’s based on the developmental abilities of children at a given age and the specific features of the toy,” the group noted.

“There are various drone items on the market, with varying levels of sophistication and increasingly complicated features,” it stated, “so if you’re interested in buying a child a drone, make sure to match the one you select with the experience level of the would-be pilot.”

And there seems to be a growing number of those would-be pilots. The Toy Association’s website lists drones as one of the top tech-toy trends for 2017.

“This year we are seeing a surge in augmented and virtual reality toys, drones, virtual pets, robotics, and more,” the industry group said on its website.

“The good news for consumers is that technologies that were just emerging a few years ago ... have become a lot more affordable for manufacturers, making high-tech experiences more readily available at realistic price points.”

And the cheaper ones — which might not be age-appropriate or that offer multiple scenarios for injury — worry some industry observers such as Siff of the toy safety group.

“Unsafe toys can come at any price,” she said, “but the more that are available and out there, the more risk of harm there is so it’s a concern.”

Joan Lawrence, senior vice president of the Toy Association, told USA Today that parents should buy from retailers they know and trust, follow age requirements and safety instructions on toy packages and demonstrate safe play with children.


More sophisticated drones can be used by kids to learn about science and technology.

“Given the importance of STEM education and our nation’s emphasis on innovation, it’s great that kids are getting excited about emerging technologies,” said Doug Johnson, vice president of technology policy for the Consumer Technology Association.

“The first place to start right after you open the box — or even before — is the Know Before You Fly website,” he said, responding to questions from The News Tribune.

“This is an educational campaign designed specifically for consumer drone flyers, teaching them about the information and guidance they need to fly safely and responsibly.”

Another group on the East Coast sees drones as a way to encourage STEM-based education for kids and adults.

“We want kids of all ages to enjoy drone flying,” Bob Payne, founder of Central New York Drones, said in a recent interview with WKTV in Utica, New York. “When I say kids of all ages I mean from 5 to 85.”


If you buy a drone, review your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy for loopholes that might leave you with a repair bill if something goes sideways.

It’s critical to know not only the rules of flying, but also what’s covered in your policy, Kenton Brine, president of the NW Insurance Council, told The News Tribune via email.

“Some insurers may specifically exclude liability for damages caused by a drone,” Brine said. “However, we believe that in most cases, homeowners’ insurance provides liability protection unless the acts leading to the damages were committed intentionally.”

Commercial drones face separate insurance requirements and generally won’t be on your regular insurance policy’s list of what’s covered. (See related story here.)


Target, along with its selection of drones, has a paper airplane conversion kit for $17. Same price on Amazon.

If drones or motorized paper airplanes aren’t your thing, there’s always an “Infrared Induction Flying Flash Disco Colorful LED Ball Helicopter,” selling for less than $10 (on clearance) at Walmart online.

A similar product is on Amazon, which we purchased and tested.

That item’s ad copy recommends not launching it “at people or animals.”

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell


To register a drone:

Go to

Hobbyists are not required to register their drones, though the Federal Aviation Administration says it “encourages them to do so.”

For hobbyists, a drone that weighs less than 0.55 pounds is not required to be registered.

As of Nov. 9, there were 940,724 drone registrations nationwide since Dec. 21, 2015, according to the FAA.

Of the total registrations, 840,213 were for hobbyists who receive one ID number for all the drones they own.

The remainder primarily are commercial and public agencies’ drones, which are individually registered.

To fly:

Online educational resources can help those learning to fly a drone. The main one is

Don’t get hacked

Something to keep in mind: Drones are among the top five “most hackable holiday gifts” for 2017, according to McAfee cybersecurity:

“Sales of drones are expected to top $1 billion in 2017, but security hasn’t quite caught up,” the company said. “Consumers need to stay mindful of risks associated with drone jacking and fake Wi-Fi signals from rogue drones.”

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