By Professor Robert Lunnie
It’s the holiday season and you decided to take the plunge into drone ownership. There are many ways you may have obtained a new Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) for Christmas. Maybe you scanned the internet for weeks, finding a great deal on the perfect drone and had it delivered to your doorstep. Perhaps you jumped into your grocery assault vehicle and waged battle against other shoppers at 5:00 a.m. on Black Friday. Or possibly you are just a big kid who asked your children to purchase a drone for the family! Regardless of how it transpired, you are now the proud owner of a shiny new and most likely expensive UAS. So now what? Here are a few things to consider before taking your new drone on its maiden flight:
Take your time unpacking your new UAS and do a function check on all the components as soon as possible. Remember, the “S” in UAS stands for systems; therefore, it is important to make sure all components are working properly, not just the aircraft itself. I learned this lesson a couple of years back, when I purchased my first commercial quality UAS. After diligently waiting for my new gear to arrive, I opened the box, carefully removed all of the components and started inspecting. Although the drone itself was in perfect working order, the controller would not take a charge and reluctantly had to be sent back to the manufacturer. Unfortunately, returning equipment for repair or replacement can take time, thus delaying your maiden flight by weeks.
Downloading the App and Reading the Manual
Depending on which UAS you purchased, chances are you’re going to have to download, install, and update the manufacturers software on your phone or tablet. Keep in mind, this can take a while and is a necessary evil before taking to the skies. While you’re waiting for your app to download, I suggest taking a few moments to read the owner’s manual. Although it is not the most fun aspect of UAS ownership, this is a great way to learn about your new unmanned aircraft. When doing so, pay particular attention to any safety features installed on your UAS.
Use A Simulator
This is an often overlooked aspect of flying a new drone. Why not take a virtual spin in your new UAS before flying it on a chilly North Dakota afternoon? Even if you are a seasoned pilot, taking time to use a simulator has advantages. First, you can learn more about your drone in the comfort of your home or shop. It also aids in avoiding pilot error by learning the controls and buttons ahead of time. As we know, muscle memory is a very real thing in pilotage and this holds true for UAS as well.
Most reputable UAS manufacturers have training simulators available for their drone customers. If your new drone does not come with access to a simulator, a quick internet search will yield many free options. Understanding the idiosyncrasies of your UAS in the virtual world is much safer than doing it for real. If you don’t believe me, grab a cup of coffee, get comfortable in your favorite chair, and search “drone fails” on YouTube. Be prepared to stay awhile!
Know the Rules
Did you know that registering your new drone before its first flight might be mandatory? Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires owners to register their drone if it weighs more than .55 lbs (250 grams) and less than 55 lbs (25kg). There are multiple categories of registration, depending on whether it is being used recreationally, commercially, or in an educational or public safety manner. Not sure which category to use? No worries, the FAA has a user identification tool that will help guide you through the process. Visit the FAA’S UAS website for more information on properly registering your new drone.
Wide Open Spaces
Wide open spaces are something we have in abundance in North Dakota and one of the many reasons why UAS is taking off in our state. Just like your first solo or mastering steep turns in the practice area, utilizing our uncongested wide-open spaces is a great place to hone your flying skills.
Flying unmanned aircraft in a responsible manner is one of the most important aspects of UAS ownership. The news is littered with stories of irresponsible pilots flying drones near manned aircraft, taking pictures of unsuspecting neighbors, and causing general havoc with schools and other municipal structures. Flying responsibly is not only a safety issue but a moral obligation as well. Following these few simple rules will keep you, your drone, and your neighbors safe and happy:
• Reasonable expectation of privacy. This is a very important phrase when dealing with UAS privacy issues. Never photograph or conduct surveillance in areas where there are reasonable expectations of privacy. If you are in an area where you wouldn’t want to be photographed, chances are neither does anyone else.
• Keep your unmanned aircraft in visual line of sight at all times and never intentionally fly over groups of people. These are not only responsibility issues, they are also regulations.
• Avoid obstacles at all times and never fly near manned aircraft operations.
• Never drink and fly, period. “Eight hours from bottle to throttle” also applies to UAS!
• If you are unsure of where to fly your drone, there are numerous websites that can help you determine a great location. For example, Know Before You Fly is a campaign to educate pilots on the safe and responsible operation of UAS. They have a fantastic website that includes an interactive map to help you decide the best location to safely pilot your UAS.
Getting a new UAS for Christmas is an extremely exciting experience. However, the joy of unwrapping your new unmanned aircraft can be quickly overshadowed by downloading apps, registering aircraft, and knowing where you can safely and legally fly on a brisk North Dakota winter’s day. But have no fear, take your time, follow a few simple steps and you’ll be taking to the skies in no time. And don’t forget to give your children a turn at the controls, if they were your excuse for buying the drone in the first place!