Around 3 in the morning on Jan. 26, 2015, a DJI Phantom quadcopter drone crash-landed on the grounds of the White House in Washington, D.C. Authorities soon traced the unmanned aircraft back to its pilot: a sheepish federal employee who had gotten drunk, taken his friend’s drone out for a spin, lost control, and fallen asleep. The incident made national news—“White House Drone Crash Described as a U.S. Worker’s Drunken Lark” was the New York Times’ excellent headline—and while the man ultimately avoided being charged with a crime, it was still a perfect example of why drinking and droning just don’t mix.
I can think of plenty of other drinking-and-droning scenarios that are just as regrettable, if perhaps less dramatic. Maybe you fumble with the controls or fly the drone out of range and end up crashing it into a house, or a car, or a pedestrian. Maybe you incur your neighbor’s wrath by repeatedly and willfully buzzing a backyard barbecue to which you weren’t invited; maybe your equally drunken neighbor grabs his shotgun and starts blasting into the skies in response. Maybe you send the drone over to your ex’s house with a banner attached reading, “I Still Love You Pat.” It’s frankly hard to think of a drinking-and-droning scenario that doesn’t involve serious risk of injury or humiliation.
The reasons for this are obvious. Safe operation of a drone—or, indeed, any form of aircraft—requires the operator to be alert and coordinated. When you drink alcohol, you become neither of those things. Drinking to excess impairs your judgment, your fine motor skills, and your reaction time. Bad ideas start to seem like good ones, you start to feel an inflated sense of your own competence, and then the next thing you know the feds are at your door and you have to convince them that you aren’t a national security threat. Trust me, people: This could happen to you.
I’m bringing this up now because Christmas is coming soon, and if your Christmas is anything like mine, it involves lots of Scotch. This year, your Christmas will also probably involve a drone or two. The FAA projects that 1.6 million small recreational drones will be sold in 2015, with approximately 800,000 of those sales taking place during October, November, and December: the holiday shopping season. If you’re the sort of person who is reading this particular article by choice, you are also probably the sort of person about whom your family members say, “Hmm, Terry’s into gadgets. I’ll get Terry a gadget for Christmas this year!”
Consumer drones are the gadgetiest gadgets on the market this year. So listen up, Terry. If you happen to get one—or if you happen to give one—please keep safety in mind. If this is your very first drone, the time for your maiden voyage is not after imbibing a vat of eggnog. If you fly while drunk of buzzed, you’re courting disaster—and, if worse comes to worst, maybe even an unexpected visit from the Secret Service. So save the liquid holiday cheer for after you drone.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.