Why manual flight skills should be maintained in an automated world

In the drone mapping world, we fly aircraft that use software to follow a precise path, and collect data along the way, 99% of the time without any human input aside from pushing “go” on the display.

We fly our missions with automated software and stand by as a fail safe if something goes wrong. We are always prepared to take the sticks need be, but we usually don’t have to. As you fly successful mission after successful mission, it can end up hindering your manual flight abilities, because; think about it, when is the last time you were in an emergency and had to take manual control? If you are a good pilot with solid standard operating procedures, chances are you’ve mitigated almost all of the risk involved before you fly, and don’t frequently deal with mission abortions or other emergencies during flight. Truth be told, this excellent safety record makes you less proficient in manual flight, simply because, you never have to do it! which is why it is important to consider creating a practice regimen.

If you fly drones as a hobby, chances are you take the drone out for manual flight on a regular enough basis, but if you use the drone solely for mapping missions, you probably have not taken it out unless it’s to fly an automated mission.

As pilots, we have to recognize that in aviation, manned or unmanned, when something goes wrong, the stakes are a lot higher, and because of this, there is more value and importance placed on emergency procedures and having the built in instinct to execute these procedures when you need to, without thinking about them.

Implicit memory is the type of memory that you can recall without consciously thinking about. Of all implicit memory, procedural memory is key for our purpose. Procedural memory is what allows you to, for example; just drive your car or truck, instead of thinking through each step involved; from opening the door, to inserting the key to pushing the brake pedal to pushing the clutch, etc., you just do it, and don’t think about it. This type of memory is only acquired through practice. It is also the reason why things we once thought complicated, are now trivially easy to us, such as riding a bike. Sure, you can go a year without riding a bike, and pick it up again very quickly, but those first few minutes on the bike are going to be a bit shaky as you get used to the feel of it again. Now let’s pretend previous to this 1 year hiatus you only rode a bike one or two times ever and were able to balance for 100 feet or so and called that good enough, now it’s 1 year later and it’s like you’ve never ridden a bike before.

Now let’s pretend that the bike is a drone and you haven’t taken manual control in a year. Your only previous manual flight experience was when you first got the drone, for a couple of hours to get used to the feel of it. And your operating procedures are so good that nothing has ever made manual flight necessary, until now, in the middle of a mundane mission, (for example) your drone is on a collision course with a low flying helicopter, and you don’t have the couple of minutes to get your bearings with the sticks, you need to act now and fast, could you do it?  If you’re questioning the answer to this at all, chances are, it’s time to practice manual flight!

It takes about 20 hours of practice to become fairly proficient in most all motor tasks, piloting a drone included. If you practice manual flight once every other week for 45-60 minutes, you will hit your 20 hour mark in a year, this is generally a good schedule to maintain the skills and abilities and keep the rust off. If you are brand new to flying drones, try to get that 20 hours in as soon as feasible, to lay a solid foundation that can be maintained.

When is the last time you took the drone out and practiced manual flight maneuvers? Have some fun with it, challenge yourself (within reason). Here is a list of progressive manual flight maneuvers, once you’ve mastered one move on to the next!

 Squares and circles with the drone facing forward; these maneuvers will get you oriented with the right stick and what its functions are, the circles will help you gain fluidity through transitions of directional input with the right stick. Try to begin and end your maneuver in the same location by selecting a point on the ground to hover over. You only need to use the right stick once hovering at an altitude between 10-15 feet.

Squares and circles with the drone facing forward; these maneuvers will get you oriented with the right stick and what its functions are, the circles will help you gain fluidity through transitions of directional input with the right stick. Try to begin and end your maneuver in the same location by selecting a point on the ground to hover over. You only need to use the right stick once hovering at an altitude between 10-15 feet.

 Squares and circles with the drone constantly traveling forward; these maneuvers will help you orient your right and left stick movements together and deal with relative directional orientation of the drone. In these maneuvers you are constantly pushing forward on the right stick and using the left stick to rotate the drone. This might seem abstract at first, but it will get easier after a few tries. Once you are comfortable with one direction, try it in the other!

Squares and circles with the drone constantly traveling forward; these maneuvers will help you orient your right and left stick movements together and deal with relative directional orientation of the drone. In these maneuvers you are constantly pushing forward on the right stick and using the left stick to rotate the drone. This might seem abstract at first, but it will get easier after a few tries. Once you are comfortable with one direction, try it in the other!

 Squares and circles in multiple orientations; these maneuvers are designed to really test your ability to keep your directional orientations straight. Flying sideways, pushing left on the right stick, you will keep the drone facing camera-inwards by rotating the drone with the left stick. The circles will help you work on fluidity in this maneuver across both sticks.

Squares and circles in multiple orientations; these maneuvers are designed to really test your ability to keep your directional orientations straight. Flying sideways, pushing left on the right stick, you will keep the drone facing camera-inwards by rotating the drone with the left stick. The circles will help you work on fluidity in this maneuver across both sticks.

 The figure 8 can be practiced in two phases; to start, practice flying a forward facing circle and then switch the rotation on the left hand stick to go in the opposite direction once you complete your circle. Another (more advanced way) to practice this is to keep the camera facing inwards the entire time, this will require you to pivot the camera 180 degrees after the first circle is complete and at the same time, orient yourself by switching directions on the right stick while continuing to rotate the drone to keep the camera facing inwards. (This is a challenging one to do fluidly)

The figure 8 can be practiced in two phases; to start, practice flying a forward facing circle and then switch the rotation on the left hand stick to go in the opposite direction once you complete your circle. Another (more advanced way) to practice this is to keep the camera facing inwards the entire time, this will require you to pivot the camera 180 degrees after the first circle is complete and at the same time, orient yourself by switching directions on the right stick while continuing to rotate the drone to keep the camera facing inwards. (This is a challenging one to do fluidly)

Remember to give yourself some margin of safety (room to make mistakes) when practicing new maneuvers. Keeping an altitude of at least 10-15 feet will give you a buffer from the ground that will allow you to make a mistake that won’t cost you thousands of dollars. Happy flying!

National airspace system

Understanding the National Airspace system can seem cumbersome, and if you’ve never had any experience with it before, looking at a VFR sectional chart will certainly raise your cortisol levels. Don’t stress it though, these charts were made for manned aviation, and much of the information on this chart is going to be white noise for a part 107 pilot. The fact that we can only fly up to 400’ AGL (without a waiver) drastically cuts down the excess information on a VFR sectional and makes the national airspace system, from our point of view, much easier to digest. What we are concerned with are any areas where controlled airspace starts at the surface, which in almost all cases are in a 5-10 mile radius around larger airports and a 3-5 mile radius around smaller airports. If we reduce the VFR chart to this relevant information, we end up with what you can find here: https://faa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=9c2e4406710048e19806ebf6a06754ad

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This is the FAA’s LAANC map, which shows, in a grid, all of the areas you would need to obtain prior authorization to fly in. The numbers inside the grids are the maximum altitudes you can request to fly at within the controlled airspace- NOT the altitude you can fly up to in general, *you need to obtain authorization to fly at any altitude within the grids. If the grid is green, this means that you can get instant authorization to fly to the altitude provided through an approved app that works with LAANC, such as DJI, Airmap, and a few others. The red grids are airports that do not have LAANC automation activated yet, meaning you will have to file a “manual authorization” by logging into your FAA dronezone account at dronezone.faa.gov, and clicking the “create part 107 waiver or authorization” button and following the instructions. All information needed to file for an authorization can be found at the above LAANC map site by clicking on the location of interest. Resources on how to file an airspace authorization, will be discussed in their own section.

What is the difference between a waiver and an authorization you ask? A waiver is a request to break one of the part 107 rules, such as flying above 400’ AGL, flying beyond visual line of sight, or flying at night. A waiver is more difficult to obtain and requires very specific descriptions on how you plan to mitigate risks involved with breaking a part 107 rule. You probably don’t need a waiver. An authorization is simply a request to fly in controlled airspace. And for mapping purposes, authorizations are the only type of request you should have to file with the FAA. Filing the wrong type of request can lead to weeks without knowing you filed incorrectly and then an inevitable denial; it can be very frustrating. Be sure you know what you’re filing for before you file. When in doubt, reach out.  

Some very small airports are not in controlled airspace at all, but this does not give us the right to operate without precaution. These non towered airports are everywhere across the country. Aircraft navigate in and out of these airports by broadcasting on common traffic advisory frequencies or CTAFs. They use these frequencies to announce their positions and use see and avoid techniques to keep separation from other aircraft in the area. If you have a radio that can receive these transmissions, it would be a good idea to monitor the frequency for the airport while you operate. Aircraft on CTAFs almost always broadcast information in this order; identify who they are talking to, identify themselves, identify their location, identify their intentions, close the transmission by again identifying who they are talking to. Do not attempt to broadcast on these frequencies, just use them to monitor any possible traffic in the area, it is your responsibility to stay out of their way. Understanding traffic patterns will help us avoid flying in areas where these aircraft may be flying very low to the ground. Below is a representation of what a normal traffic pattern looks like:

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Generally, traffic patterns are 1000’ AGL, a nice buffer of 600’ above where we are allowed to fly at a maximum, but this does not mean that aircraft will always be at 1000’ AGL, especially on the “final” leg of the pattern and on the “upwind” leg of the pattern. It is best to avoid flying directly off of an approach or departure end of a runway, as this is where aircraft altitude is most unpredictable and lowest to the ground.

Each airport will have its own traffic pattern rules, more specifically, a traffic pattern direction; patterns are either “right traffic” or “left traffic”, and can sometimes change with direction of the wind. It is a good idea to know this information about an airport if you have a project site near one. In general, we should always have our eyes and ears to the sky when flying missions, but especially when flying near airports. Train yourself to orient towards aircraft noise, that way you are never taken by surprise and help keep our friends in manned aircraft safe.

Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM)

ADM is exactly what it sounds like, decision making techniques in the special environment of aviation. While originally developed for manned aviation, it has its place in unmanned aviation as well because of the special risks involved with being airborne. Good ADM will lead to overall, better risk mitigation and a higher confidence in mission success. The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge has an entire section on Aeronautical decision making. It is a free resource provided by the FAA and is very helpful when creating your company’s policies and procedures surrounding your UAS program. Click the picture below to check out Chapter 2 of the PHAK:


More content coming soon…

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