Getting Started with Drones

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, have rapidly become a familiar sight in our skies. These technological marvels, once reserved for specialized applications, are now a blend of innovation and everyday utility. As their presence grows, understanding their evolution and diversity is essential for both enthusiasts and the casually curious.

History of UAS

While drones have roots in earlier decades, their surge in the public domain is a phenomenon of the 21st century. Initially, they were tools of the military, used for surveillance and reconnaissance. However, the last two decades have seen a transformative shift. Advances in technology made drones more accessible, leading to their adoption in various sectors. From filmmaking and journalism to agriculture and real estate, drones have found a place, revolutionizing how tasks are approached and offering perspectives previously unimaginable.

Types of UAS

Drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each tailored for specific needs:

  • Hobbyist vs. Commercial Drones: Hobbyist drones are designed for personal use, offering a blend of simplicity and functionality. They’re perfect for capturing moments or exploring local landscapes. Commercial drones, on the other hand, are crafted for specialized tasks. Equipped with advanced features, they serve industries, aiding in tasks like land surveying, crop monitoring, or cinematic filming.
    • Examples of Hobbyist Drones: DJI Mini 2 or DJI Mini 3 Pro
    • Example of a Commercial Drone: DJI M300; Autel EVO II; Intel Falcon 8+; Wispr Systems Ranger
    • FPV is another category that could be considered hobbyist or commercial and have gained a lot of popularity in recent years. They also come in a few popular sizes depending on a person’s preference. 
  • Fixed-wing vs. Multirotor Drones: Fixed-wing drones, resembling small airplanes, are built for endurance and covering vast distances. They’re often used for tasks like mapping or agricultural surveys. Multirotor drones, with their ability to hover and provide precision, are the go-to choice for photography, inspections, and more localized missions.
    • Examples of a fixed wing UAS is the Censys Sentaero which is a VTOL style aircraft that takes off and lands vertically, but otherwise uses its wings to provide lift throughout the flight.
  • Size Categories: From the palm-sized nano drones to the more robust medium and large drones, size often dictates the drone’s purpose. While smaller drones are great for personal use and indoor flights, the larger counterparts come equipped for specialized commercial applications.

UAS Applications

There are a variety of drone use cases, from hobbyist to commercial, but we’ll focus on the commercial use cases for this article. A few of 

  • Aerial Photography and Videography: From breathtaking landscape shots to dynamic film sequences, drones have revolutionized the world of photography and filmmaking. Shots that were only available with a cinema rig and a helicopter can be captured with cinema drones at a fraction of the cost and with less risk. 
  • Agriculture: Farms are using drones for a multitude of tasks, from monitoring crop health and growth to optimizing irrigation systems, to most recently aerial spraying! DJI and Hylio are among the manufacturers providing aircraft in this specialized sector. 
  • Mapping and Surveying: Creating detailed, high-resolution maps has never been easier, thanks to drones. They’re used in everything from construction site planning to archaeological explorations. A few years ago a DJI Phantom 4 Pro could map several hundred acres in a day with pretty good results. More advanced camera systems and aircraft are replacing them by offering better detail with more accuracy. 
  • Inspection: Hard-to-reach places, like electrical utility structures, bridges, or wind turbines, are no longer a challenge. Drone service providers, like our own sister company Soaring Eagle Technologies, has utilized a variety of aircraft for these types of inspections. Drones can safely and efficiently inspect these structures, ensuring they’re in good condition.
  • Search and Rescue: In emergency situations, every second counts. Drones can quickly scan large areas, helping locate missing persons or assessing disaster sites. Thermal technology helps first responders and other UAS operators tasked with SAR missions locate people by looking for their heat signature! 
  • Environmental Monitoring: Scientists and researchers use drones to monitor wildlife, track changes in ecosystems, and gather data on climate change effects. The natural gas industry is adopting small UAS with specialized payloads designed to detect leaks before they become a problem.

Getting Started with UAS

Your UAS journey is more than just unboxing a drone and taking to the skies. It’s about understanding the intricacies of flight, the importance of safety, and the regulations that govern these aircraft. Here are a few foundational steps to take to ensure a smooth and responsible flight experience.

  • Choosing the Right Drone for Your Needs: The first step is understanding your purpose. Are you looking to capture stunning aerial shots, or are you more interested in technical tasks like mapping? The drone market is vast, with options tailored for every need. Research is key. Look for drones that align with your goals, whether it’s a hobbyist model with a good camera or a commercial drone equipped with specialized sensors.
  • Basic Flight Training and Safety Precautions: Before you take off, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the basics of drone operation. Many drones come with beginner modes, tutorials, or simulators to help you get the hang of things. But beyond the controls, understanding safety is paramount. This includes everything from pre-flight checks to being aware of your surroundings and potential hazards.If you’re interested in getting “stick time” before you fly a drone for the first time, Real Flight is a fantastic place to start and it’s available on Windows and Mac using the Steam platform. Highly recommended. 
  • Understanding Airspace and Flight Restrictions: This is where the real importance of knowledge comes into play. Not all skies are open for drones. There are specific zones, especially around airports or critical infrastructures, where drone flights are restricted or prohibited. Knowing where you can and can’t fly is not just about following the rules; it’s about ensuring safety for all.

The world of UAS is as exciting as it is intricate. Proper training and a thorough understanding of regulations are not just recommendations; they’re necessities. And while we’ve touched upon the importance of rules and guidelines here, there’s a deeper dive into the specifics of regulations and licensing, which we’ll discuss further below. This foundation ensures that every flight is not just enjoyable but also responsible and safe.

Regulations and Licensing

Navigating the skies with a drone isn’t the Wild West; it’s a structured environment with clear rules and regulations. Understanding these is paramount not just for safety, but also for the legal operation of your UAS. Whether you’re flying for fun or for profit, there’s a regulatory framework you need to be aware of.

Introduction to the FAA’s Part 107: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced Part 107 to regulate the commercial use of drones. Under Part 107, commercial drone pilots are required to follow specific rules and guidelines. This includes restrictions on flying over people, nighttime operations, and operating in certain airspaces. The essence of Part 107 is to ensure that commercial drone operations are carried out safely, without posing risks to manned aircraft or people on the ground.

Remote Pilot Certificate for Commercial Operators: If you’re looking to use your drone for commercial purposes, obtaining a Remote Pilot Certificate is a must. This involves passing the Part 107 knowledge test, which covers various topics like airspace classifications, flight restrictions, and emergency procedures. Once certified, pilots must also ensure they renew their certification every two years, which involves retaking and passing the knowledge test.

The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) for Hobbyists: For those flying just for fun, the FAA introduced TRUST. It’s an educational tool designed to ensure that recreational pilots understand the safety and regulatory requirements for flying drones. While it’s not as comprehensive as the Part 107 test, it’s essential for ensuring that hobbyists are aware of the basics, like where they can fly, altitude restrictions, and the importance of not interfering with manned aircraft.

Operating Rules and Guidelines: Beyond the tests and certifications, there are general rules every drone pilot should adhere to. This includes maintaining a visual line of sight with the drone, not operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and respecting privacy laws. Additionally, it’s crucial to be aware of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) that can be issued for various reasons, from sporting events to VIP movements.

In the realm of UAS, knowledge truly is power. Being well-versed in regulations and licensing not only keeps the skies safe but also ensures that pilots can operate with confidence and credibility. 

We would be remiss if we failed to mention that UATI offers comprehensive training for anyone getting into commercial UAS operations. Our Part 107 Bootcamp is designed to help new pilots quickly prepare for the Part 107 exam while stressing the importance of safety. As the industry continues to evolve, staying updated on these regulations and safety best practices will be vital for both hobbyists and commercial operators.

Flying a drone can be a lot of fun, but it comes with the responsibility of ensuring safety for both the operator and those on the ground. Beyond adhering to regulations, there are best practices that every drone pilot, whether hobbyist or professional, should internalize. These practices ensure not just compliance but also the longevity of your equipment and the reputation of the UAS community.

  • Pre-flight Checks and Maintenance: Before every flight, it’s essential to conduct a thorough check of your drone. Ensure that the batteries are fully charged and securely placed, propellers are free from damage, and all firmware is updated. Regular maintenance, such as cleaning and checking for wear and tear, can prevent unexpected malfunctions during flight.
  • Safe Flying Habits: Always maintain a visual line of sight with your drone. This means keeping the drone within a range where you can see it without the aid of any tools like binoculars. Most radio frequencies drones use work poorly behind obstacles, so don’t fly behind buildings either. Avoid flying over large crowds or anyone that’s not part of your crew. This isn’t just illegal, it’s also dangerous because drones can (and do) experience power related problems. And since multi-rotor drones don’t glide very well, it’s coming down on whatever (or whoever) that is directly below. It’s also wise to be cautious in adverse weather conditions, as wind, rain, or snow can affect the drone’s performance.
  • Avoiding Hazards and No-fly Zones: Be aware of your surroundings. Tall structures, trees, and other obstacles pose risks. Additionally, certain areas, such as near airports, military bases, or national parks, are designated no-fly zones. Tools and apps provided by the FAA, like B4UFLY, can help pilots identify these zones.
  • Respect Privacy: Just because you can fly over a particular area doesn’t always mean you should. Always be mindful of privacy concerns. Avoid capturing images or videos of people without their consent or flying over private properties where you might intrude on someone’s privacy.
  • Emergency Preparedness: Always be prepared for unexpected situations. This includes knowing how to safely land your drone in case of a malfunction or if you encounter unexpected obstacles. Familiarize yourself with your drone’s emergency features, such as the “Return to Home” function.

Safety, in the world of UAS, is a collective effort. Every pilot’s commitment to best practices not only ensures their safety but also paves the way for broader acceptance and trust in drone technology among the general public.

The Future of UAS

The horizon for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) is vast and ever-expanding. As we stand on the cusp of technological advancements, drones are not just about what they can do now, but what they promise for the future. Their potential is only beginning to be tapped, and the coming years are set to be transformative.

  • Emerging Technologies in the UAS Sector: As technology evolves, so do drones. Battery technology is advancing, promising longer flight times and quicker charging. We’re witnessing the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, enabling drones to make decisions, recognize patterns, and even interact with their environment autonomously. That’s exactly what the Censys BVLOS aircraft does with its integrated Casia Detect and Avoid system used to detect a manned aircraft and actively avoid it until the risk of an airspace collision has been avoided.
  • Potential Future Applications: The applications of drones will go beyond what we see today. We can anticipate drones that assist in medical emergencies, delivering life-saving equipment or medicines. There’s also potential in the realm of environmental conservation, with drones monitoring ecosystems, tracking wildlife, and even planting trees. Urban planning and traffic management might also see a revolution with the aerial perspective and data collection capabilities of drones. LiDAR is already commonly used in land development. We’ll continue to see a trend of this technology becoming more accurate, lighter, and easier to use. 
  • Integration into Daily Life: The concept of drone deliveries, once a sci-fi fantasy, is inching closer to reality. Companies are already piloting programs where drones deliver everything from packages to pizzas. As drones become more integrated with IoT (Internet of Things), we might see them communicating with other devices, automating many tasks in our daily lives.

The trajectory for UAS is clear: upward and forward. As we look to the skies, it’s not just about the drones we see but the promise they hold. For enthusiasts, professionals, and the general public, the future of UAS is a thrilling journey waiting to unfold.

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