Getting started with drones

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Written by Patrick Sherman Advanced Flight Technologies Column As seen in the May 2018 issue of Model Aviation.

I have a confession. I had no background in aeromodeling when I got started flying drones eight years ago. I had literally never touched a radio, but the lure of seeing the world from above through a pair of FPV goggles proved so potent that I dedicated myself to overcoming every obstacle—and I made many mistakes along the way. My goal is to help you avoid some of those pitfalls as you embark upon your own journey with drones—a word that I use to describe multirotor aircraft capable of streaming live video and telemetry to a pilot on the ground.

Square One

Modern drones are true technological marvels, using GPS receivers, machine vision systems, optical flow cameras, ultrasonic and infrared range finders, accelerometers, gyroscopes, compasses, barometers, and other sensors to deliver an extraordinary degree of stability and safety. If the battery gets too low or you lose track of your aircraft, you can press a return-to-home button and your drone will come back to you. In only a few minutes, I can help a complete novice successfully steer a drone around the sky—but that is not the same thing as being a pilot. As a beginner, it’s tempting to run out and buy the latest, greatest drone then take it out to a local park and start flying. Indeed, that is precisely what I did (although my first drone was homebuilt). You will soon find, however, that there are additional factors that influence your flying experience, such as aircraft orientation (the direction that the aircraft is facing relative to you), weather, judging the distance between your drone and obstacles, and so on.
Say hello to the author’s little friends! Palm-size aircraft are great ways to develop your skills without the hazards of flying a larger platform. These models, from Horizon Hobby and Hobbico, can be flown indoors and bear repeated crashes with aplomb.

Crash Course

If you are new to RC flying, you are going to crash, even with all of that fancy technology onboard. Crashing causes damage, and damage costs time and money to repair. Therefore, your goal as a new pilot is to reduce the cost of each crash you experience. In this regard, you have two options and I suggest that you exercise both of them. First, get a simulator such as one from RealFlight or Phoenix R/C. Spend approximately 20 to 40 hours crashing virtual aircraft that are instantly repaired at the touch of a button before committing a real drone to the sky. Second, buy and practice with a small, palm-size drone. Good models are available from several manufacturers for less than $100, and they are designed to be nearly indestructible, thus lowering the cost of the mistakes you will inevitably make as you are getting started. If you are an experienced aeromodeler, there is certainly nothing wrong with following those same steps, especially if you only have experience with fixed-wing aircraft. However, if you have any rotorcraft experience at all, you will find modern drones to be exceptionally easy to fly.

The Need for Speed

Drone racing has grown explosively within the AMA community. The MultiGP Special Interest Group (SIG) now boasts more than 1,100 chapters and 20,000 registered pilots globally—all in less than three years from when the SIG was first established. The sport, which is also known as FPV racing, is certainly a thrill, with aircraft that regularly exceed 80 mph while flying through narrow gates and around pylons that are mere feet off of the ground. The pilots sit nearby, flying through a pair of video goggles that are tied directly to a camera onboard the aircraft. For all of its excitement, drone racing is also the most demanding discipline for beginners. The aircraft are exceptionally nimble and lack all but the most rudimentary sensors, giving a pilot unlimited control over yaw, pitch, and roll, and making a drone challenging to fly even in unhurried circumstances. Crashing is a regular and expected part of drone racing, even for veterans of the sport.
The notion of flying RC for a living might seem like a dream come true, but it requires a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA, commercial insurance, and recognition that competition is fierce in this fledgling industry.

In addition to being an expert pilot, a would-be drone racer must also be able to work on his or her aircraft’s electronic and mechanical systems, which can involve skills as disparate as soldering and modifying computer code. You should expect that becoming a competitive drone racer will involve a considerable investment of time, money, and effort, especially if you are new to aeromodeling.

Infinite Selfie Stick

Last year, a new category of drones emerged, with names such as Yuneec Breeze, DJI Spark, and ZeroTech Dobby. These were designed for aerial photography, but they are tailored to one specific subject: the person who is operating the aircraft. Given the popularity of “selfies” on social media and the rush of hardware to facilitate their creation (from selfie sticks to front-facing cameras on smartphones), it only made sense that drone manufacturers would seek to serve this same audience. The good news is that these petite, relatively inexpensive aircraft have been specifically designed with novice users in mind. The bad news is that they still rely on a pilot’s good judgment in order to be operated safely, and that’s a quality that could be in short supply among sunburned vacationers with a few beers onboard. Take the time to learn to fly before you try using your drone for the first time, and exercise appropriate care about where and when you fly. Don’t drink and drone. Never fly within 5 miles of an active airport without notifying the airport beforehand. Don’t fly over crowds of people, moving vehicles, or near big public events and venues such as sports stadiums, and be aware of no-drone zones, which include all of the US national parks. Finally, make sure you are covered by insurance. Even a small drone can do a lot of damage if something goes wrong, and some homeowners’ policies specifically exclude damage related to model aviation. Joining the AMA provides you with $2.5 million in liability protection, regardless of where you are flying, provided that you adhere to the AMA National Model Aircraft Safety Code.
As a beginner drone pilot, it is inevitable that you will crash. Your goal should be to reduce the cost of each crash as much as possible. A simulator, such as Hobbico’s RealFlight 8, is a great way to build up your basic skills without the risk of damaging your aircraft.

Going Professional

Nearly everyone who flies RC started as a hobbyist, but who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to make a living doing something he or she enjoys? If you answered that question with an enthusiastic “Yes,” then becoming a licensed commercial operator might be something to consider. It goes without saying that you need to be an expert pilot before you can even contemplate this step. You need to know a great deal about photography or specialized payloads that your drone could carry, such as thermal imaging gear, multispectral cameras, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), and whatever else this fast-changing industry thinks of next. To fly commercially (that is, to take money in exchange for operating a drone), you must have a Remote Pilot Certificate, which means passing a Part 107 test developed by the FAA that is administered at a local testing center—often located at a general aviation airport. You will also need commercial liability insurance, which is available to AMA members as an affinity program separate from its recreational liability protection. Finally, you need to recognize that approximately 70,000 people have already had the same idea, and you will be competing with all of them for a relatively few number of jobs—at least for the moment. For those of us who have been flying for nearly a decade, talk about the “drone revolution” seems downright passé; however, large and small companies, government agencies, and nonprofit groups that will ultimately employ pilots are still learning how drones fit into the business model. We still have a long way to go. Patrick Sherman


RealFlight (217) 398-8970 Phoenix R/C FAA AMA Drone Insurance (800) 435-9262 AMA National Model Aviation Safety Code AMA Safety Handbook MultiGP (321) 549-3002

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