Drones & Onewheel: New Technology Sometimes Being Misused
I have noticed a tangential connection between drones and Onewheel motorized skateboards and how they are sometimes being misused by a few. I’d like to stress a few here because I do see the majority of people using drones and Onewheel skateboards responsibly. And even responsible people can have accidents or mishaps.
This post will hopefully shed some light on these new forms of technology. It will also, hopefully, steer people in a more thoughtful and cautious direction when considering whether to buy or use these new forms of technology that can be deadly or harmful if not used properly. I’m not going to post any specific links here regarding drone or Onewheel misuse or accidents, but anyone curious can search Google for themselves.
Back in 2016 I saw someone flying a DJI Phantom drone on Cape Cod close up for the very first time. I had already know about drones but I could tell right away the one I was witnessing was not one of the toys I had seen in the park or in Toys R Us. Being a lifelong photographer and gadget freak I was more than a little intrigued. I approached the person flying the Phantom 3 drone, struck up a conversation, and took my first baby steps to learn all about drones.
Despite my desire to get a drone and fly up to the heavens like Icarus, I did not run out and buy one. I have been known to do this with smaller, less technical gadgets like GoPro action cameras, bluetooth speakers, gaming systems, etc. But something about the drone gave me pause to do some homework first. I had lots of questions, and by asking them in advance before running out and blindly buying a DJI drone, I informed myself of the many do’s and don’ts of advanced drone use. I actually waited a full year before buying a DJI Mavic Pro. After buying it I read the instructions for a full 24 hours before even turning it on. My first flight was little more than vertically taking off and landing just a dozen or so feet in my backyard. I live within 3 miles of a class C airport so flying as a hobbyist, which I was was considered then, required calling Air Traffic Controll (ATC) and informing them of my flight. I eventually was told by my local airport ATC that flying below the tree line did not require me to constantly call the ATC. The more I learned, the more I realized I needed to learn more.
After discovering I’d need a FAA license to earn any money from using a drone I decided to take a few courses and become a licensed FAA SUAS remote pilot. After that I began joining lots of groups on Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere. I sometimes found evidence of people breaking different official FAA SUAS regulations. I’ll get back to this.
There are many things you are not allowed to do with a drone that weighs over 0.55 pounds. First off you need to register it with the FAA—even if you are just a hobbyist. You are also not allowed to fly above 400 feet, over people, over moving vehicles, or at night. There are more nuances to these regulations and they are changing rapidly, which, to be fair, is part of the problem with drones. The FAA has also introduced new technology (LAANC) in the last year or so that allows anyone to get authorization to fly a SUAS in various controlled airspaces with the use of different mobile apps. Soon the FAA will require that every drone above the 0.55 pound weight threshold be identified remotely. This will help everyone be safer.
After becoming a remote pilot and using different DJI drones for several years I concluded that, for the most part, drones themselves are quite safe. Drones of course, like cars, or many other forms of technology, can be misused and are only as safe as the people operating them.
So back to the drone-rule shirkers… I have witnessed some hobbyists and licensed FAA remote pilots disregarding the rules. Some fly anywhere they want. They fly over moving vehicles. They fly over people. They fly above the clouds. They fly at night. They fly in controlled airspace with no permission. They fly where there are local bans in place. They do whatever they want. I have seen posts of drone images and videos that obviously are not legal. Drones flying over people and moving traffic are what stand out to me the most. You are not allowed to fly over people or moving traffic. It was written up as a breakthrough when CNN was granted permission to fly over people. I’ll gladly wager that someone on Instagram with a few hundred followers does not have the same FAA waiver permission to fly his drone over people that CNN does. Flying at night, and in controlled airspace no-less, is another thing I see online all the time. Unfortunately there have been drone accidents too. Search and you will see.
There is also this small but vocal movement out there among drone professionals and enthusiasts alike to not engage in any finger wagging. No rules and regulations are to be stated online! Just post cool pictures and have fun! No drone police! No one wants to hear any dispiriting voices about dang rules and regulations. I have witnessed people online politely ask others questions about how they got FAA permission and were able to fly at night, in controlled airspace, over moving traffic, and over people—and they get called out for being arseholes. Buzzkills! Drone police! This is because some people are not getting proper permission and they don’t want to discuss it. So they lash out instead.
So on to the Onewheel motorized skateboard… My introduction to the Onewheel was eerily similar to my introduction to drones. The very same person I first saw flying a DJI drone on Cape Cod in 2016 turned out to be the same person who had a Onewheel in 2019. As with drones I had already known about the Onewheel skateboard. As a kid skater from the mid 80s to mid 90s (I’m almost 50 now) the Onewheel instantly appealed to me. When I first saw my tech kindred spirt friend on Cape Cod with a Onewheel+ XR last August I got excited and asked if I could try it out. He said, “sure.” Since I’m a skater I figured there was not much more to it beyond the fact that it was motorized. I got on, balanced well, propelled forward a few hundred feet, turned around, and then attempted to get off. That’s when I realized the Onewheel needed more respect than a skateboard. When I dismounted, the Onewheel continued spinning powerfully for a moment and spat up sand and grit before finally stopping. Dismounting a Onewheel+ XR, my friend explained, is a bit tricky. I had been barefoot too. I did not fall. I was not injured. But I realized right away that the Onewheel is more than a skateboard. It is a powerful new mode of transportation and (like drones) it needs to be used with care and respect for your own safety as well as those around you.
In the months that followed seeing my friend’s Onewheel I almost ordered one for myself many times. Where I live it gets very cold, so eventually I just forgot about it and figured I’d wait until spring 2020. So fast forward to late December 2019 and I’m wandering around with my family in the The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey. This is one of the most upscale malls on the east coast. There is not much for me to shop for in there beyond food. But low and behold while walking around I happen upon a touch-try-buy style store called b8ta. Of course there was a Onewheel+ XR displayed right in the window. Now I suppose you could call it an impulse buy, but I had wanted a Onewheel for a more than a year. It was almost inevitable I’d get one eventually. I knew, too, that Onewheel is located and manufactured in California so I figured by buying it right then and there I’d be skipping the order-and-wait process. So I got one that very day. I was not disappointed.
I read the instructions. A warning of death or serious injury was mentioned right up front. I carefully and slowly tooled around my mother-in-law’s neighborhood for a few minutes. This was the *only time on my Onewheel I rode without a helmet. Then I attempted to dismount. Difficult. For anyone who knows, dismounting a Onewheel+ XR is not easy. Not at first anyway. You need to either slow to almost a complete stop and jump off with both feet simultaneously, or slow to almost a complete stop and lift one half of your front facing foot off a 2-panel sensor pad for a moment before the Onewheel sensor recognizes this and disengages the auto-balance and plops the tail down. Balance for both methods is important. It’s tricky. I’ve been very careful and I’ve still slipped and fallen dismounting a few times. Even after thinking I had the hang of it I stumbled some. You need to get it just right every time. The XR also can go in reverse, so this adds another level of trickiness to dismounting. If you lean too far back when slowing to a stop the board will also reverse direction.
The Onewheel is masterfully constructed and controlling it while riding is incredibly intuitive. The board simply speeds up and slows down depending on how much you lean forward or backward. It is also self-balancing. If you try and balance on a Onewheel when it’s turned off you will see how important the self-balancing technology is. Not that you’d want to, but even on a rug it is almost impossible to balance on when it is turned off.
In the days that followed after buying the XR I waited for dry days and skated around a bit, always with a helmet on. I found balancing and turning easy. I could feel it very quickly speed up when I leaned forward and dared not push it to anything close to top speed. I have read that people have taken it as fast as 22 mph. Yikes! The fastest I have gone so far is around 11 mph and I can’t really imagine going much faster on it than that. We’ll see.
I quickly joined a few Onewheel groups on Instagram and Facebook and was horrified to learn how many people have been injured on Oneweels. Some people were riding their Onewheels very fast, or full speed, and pushing them to the max and getting hurt. To be fair, some described the Onewheel as having faulted them by nosediving. I personally have yet to experience a Onewheel nosedive. In addition to my helmet I quickly ordered wrist guards. I’ll likely get elbow and kneepads soon too.
I am very sorry that anyone has gotten hurt on a Onewheel. Accidents can happen to anyone. As I mentioned earlier, I have fallen several times dismounting. Any one of those slips, if the wrong twist or turn occurred, could have resulted in an injury. Still, I feel there are some people (again I am stressing SOME) who have never ridden a skateboard, snowboard, or a similarly balanced device before and just ordered a Onwheel. Perhaps they just hopped on, sped it up to maximum speed, and ran—literally—into trouble and were injured. I feel bad about this. I wish people would be more cautious. The Onewheel is a lot of fun and also an incredible new personal transportation technology. But getting injured sucks. I dislocated a shoulder as a teen slipping on ice and eventually needed surgery to repair it. My arm has never been the same. I do not want to get injured on my Onewheel.
Like drones, the Onewheel needs respect. Both are incredible new forms of technology that are not terribly costly for almost anyone to acquire. Laptops, cell phones, and nice TVs are all in a similar price range. And like all technology, drones and Onewheels will only improve over time while the cost drops. Like drones, I can easily see the eventual likely public or municipal demand for some sort of regulation for motorized skateboards. Behaving responsibly and being careful is of the upmost importance.
*So what do I do as soon as I finish writing this post? I rush outside to ride my Onewheeel because it’s an unseasonably warm January day. In my excitement I forget my helmet and don’t even realize until I am a mile from home.
Stay safe everyone.