South Royalton— While several adults at a drone demonstration at Royalton Memorial Library on Saturday had safety and privacy on their minds, the kids wanted to know more about how the unmanned aircraft work.
But people of all ages appeared transfixed when Scott Turnbull, of Essex, Vt., guided a plastic mini drone up and down, from side to side in the library. Sitting in a circle, participants watched as the playing-card size robot, emitting a slight whirring sound, suddenly veered toward the doorway, nudged by the breeze from a ceiling fan.
Eventually, a child broke the silence. “Cool.”
Turnbull and Steve Mermelstein, members of the Northern New England Drone User Group, gave the presentation as part of the library’s summer reading program. Themed “On Your Mark, Get Ready, Read!” the program is part of a national effort to help prevent “summer slide,” by encouraging children to read during the school vacation.
“If kids stop reading during the summer, it will affect their ability to read in the fall,” Greg Tisher, the library’s director, said in an interview last week.
The library’s program aims to help students develop a lifelong love of reading and support their chances for academic success, Tisher said. It includes a variety of free activities led by library staff and, as with yesterday’s event, community members.
According to its website, the drone user group “seeks to promote the responsible use of flying robots for community service, artistic, entrepreneurial and recreational purposes.”
Mostly hobbyists, they often get together to race their drones, contests that are open to the public. Due to a technical glitch, a race planned at the library yesterday between two drones didn’t go off, but over the course of an hour Turnbull and Mermelstein demonstrated common drone technology, from micro and mini drones, to monitors and goggles that allow operators to know where their drones are and see what they are “seeing.”
It’s “like flying around like Superman or an eagle,” Mermelstein said. “It’s a lot of fun to race these guys.”
For those who are interested in drones, it’s best to start with the “toy” versions, which are harder to handle than larger, more expensive models, and cost anywhere from $40 for “a decent one,” to $160 for one with a camera and transmitter, he said. Most people, especially children, can become proficient after “only about 30 hours of practice.”
A photographer, Mermelstein uses drones in his work with real estate agents and to make commercials, help fire departments, and assist with search-and-rescue missions.
He and Turnbull stressed certain protocol for drone users: don’t fly above people’s heads, don’t fly near people unless they know you’re there, and don’t fly over someone else’s property without permission. Keep your drone in your line of sight, and be careful what objects you fly over.
“I’ve had to climb up trees,” Turnbull said, and the little kids laughed at the thought of it.
They also fielded plenty of queries.
“When you’re in your backyard and there’s a drone just hovering there, is that a neighbor being creepy?” asked Shannon Stoddard, a South Royalton resident who attended the presentation with her 8-year-old daughter.
Because of vibrations, cameras on small drones are limited to wide angle lenses, and despite what the media says, “people don’t use them for spying,” Mermelstein said.
Due the noise drones emit and their need to be close to a subject in order to see anything in detail, “you’re going to know it’s there,” said Mermelstein, who later called privacy concerns related to drones “very overblown and not based in reality.”
In an interview after the talk, he said that, with smaller drones, taking a picture that is clear enough to identify someone requires being within about 10 to 15 feet of them.
In 2015, 20 states adopted legislation related to drones, at least half of which address law enforcement and privacy issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
During the presentation, Cathy Bigelow, formerly a researcher for the Federal Aviation Administration, asked whether drone operators needed to follow any federal rules and regulations.
Owners of drones weighing more than half a pound need to register with the FAA, Mermelstein said, listing some of the “commonsense” requirements. Drone operators need to contact airports within five miles of where they are flying and may receive instructions about where they are allowed to go.
How long can drones fly, and how high, several children wanted to know. The answers: due to the limitations of batteries, various models can usually fly for anywhere from four to about 27 minutes. Most drones can fly no farther than 1,000 feet in any direction, Mermelstein said.
Abigail Eisler, 8, wanted to know whether cell phones could be used to control drones. Mermelstein said Wi-Fi broadcasts aren’t strong enough for that to work effectively.
Of the dozen children at the event, several said they had seen drones in action, and one boy said he had a drone at home.
The library’s summer reading activities are designed for children in kindergarten through fifth grade, but they’re open “to pretty much any school-aged children that want to come,” Tisher said last week. Guardians and caregivers, parents, siblings and other relatives, and younger children accompanied by adults are also welcome.
The next summer reading event is Animal Athletes: Live Animals in the Library, with Michael Clough from the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum on June 21 at 10 a.m. The activities will continue through Aug.10, ending with a pizza party on Aug. 17 for children who log at least 12.5 hours of reading over the summer.
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.