So much has been written in the news lately about unmanned aircraft—from drones carrying out military missions overseas to Internet companies delivering goods by automated mini-copters—that one almost expects the skies to soon fill will all kinds of strange flying machines.

We’re not quite at that point yet. But according to Donald Norris, author of the new book Build Your Own Quadcopter (McGraw Hill, 2014), building and operating small, automated choppers is a great hobby—and a practice that has many practical applications.

Norris, who teaches Information Technology at Southern New Hampshire University, describes himself as a “multi-rotor geek hobbyist.”  [giveaway giveaway_id=1720 side=”right”]

“I’ve always been kind of interested in the helicopter, and the multi-roter copter,” he told “It tweaked my interest, and I’m just kind of fascinated by the concept.”

What exactly is a quadcopter? It’s a small, radio-controlled flying machine that flies via four propellers that spin at up to 10,000 rotations per minute. Hobbyists can make their quadcopters take off, land, hover, and soar through the skies. And now, thanks to technology like the GoPro camera, quadcopter pilots can take their own aerial photos and videos, too. “Folks who do weddings and those types of things are starting to use (quadcopters)” Norris said. “It’s becoming more and more widespread.”


In fact, the use of quadcopters is becoming so widespread that it’s actually helping to save lives. “I’m a member of the Civil Air Patrol, which performs most of the search-and-rescue missions in the United States,” Norris said. “It’s great to have a quadcopter with a ground team. They could fly it, send it out over an open area, searching for, say, survivors of a downed aircraft or a lost hiker.

“Recently, there was a Sherriff’s Department who couldn’t find someone who was in an accident,” Norris said. “They found him with a quadcopter.” Norris added that quadcopters also have been used to survey dangerous areas in Fukushima, Japan, where a 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused three reactors to melt down at a nuclear power plant.


Quadcopters can also serve as a useful tool for law enforcement officials, who can use the device the way they use municipal security cameras—the same kind of cameras that helped identify and capture suspects of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. “If you think about the security cameras, they all have some sort of remote pan and tilt,” Norris said. “So now, with the quadcopter, you’re flying it instead of having it fixed to a pole or a building.”

Norris acknowledges that such devices must be used with care. “Obviously, it has to be done by trained personnel, and done safely and with protocols,” he said. “You’re not going to be flying ten feet above people’s heads. You want to make sure that it follows that fine balance between increasing security, maintaining safety, but not becoming a hazard in its own right.”

Norris also recognizes concerns over privacy that quadcopter-mounted cameras might raise. “I’m not talking about looking into people’s windows, or anything else like that,” he said. “I’m talking about just flying over a public area.

“Security is important,” he said, “but privacy is, also. It’s a balancing act.”

How about having your online order delivered by quadcopter? Norris says that you shouldn’t expect your favorite book or DVD to be delivered to your door by air anytime soon.


“I think that’s way overblown,” he said. “It’s an expensive delivery tool. For the average Joe Schmoe, you’re not going to be delivering a six-pack. It’s just not going to happen. (The quadcopter) doesn’t have the payload.”

In the meantime, Norris hopes that his book will help tech-savvy hobbyists take to the skies with their own magnificent flying machines just for sheer pleasure. “My intention is that (readers) will come away with an education and an increased comfort level where they can successfully build and fly a quad-chopper,” he said. “That’s step one. Step two is to give them enough knowledge that they can make their own modifications and be reasonably confident that their modifications will do what they expect them to do. Because that’s all part of the fun, is to build, to experiment, and to see what your modifications accomplish.

“It’s just like any other hobby,” he said. “You can control the copter, you can modify it—you get a great sense of accomplishment.”