Learning to fly: The Drone Diaries

I’m currently learning how to fly a DJI Phantom 3 drone. I have my theory course coming up in February and am really looking forward to it.

I want to try and document the process through blogs and videos. The first two films are below and will help you to see how to set the Phantom 3 up and take it for it’s first flight. (DISCLAIMER – we practice in the rural areas well away from people and buildings and I have no plan on using the drone commercially until I’m legally qualified to do so).

The course I’m studying for is the BNUC remote pilot qualification managed by a company called EuroUSC.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (and I’m talking about the ones you can buy in the shops here, not the military ones), seem to be everywhere right now. They are plastered across the media – one day they are portrayed as a brilliant new development that can be used for all sorts of good causes. The next day they are being vilified as a tool for terrorists and paedophiles.

In the last two years I’ve seen them used more and more for newsgathering. The pictures from them are stunning and they can get shots that a cameraperson on the ground would never be able to capture. But their use is also restricted, and it’s really important to be aware of the rules if you want to fly one. They might be sold in every local electronic store but if you want to use one for a story you’re going to need to be qualified and follow a pretty strict set of rules, otherwise you might get to visit the inside of a prison cell.

If you are based in the UK you are lucky because the rules are clear and the licensing is fairly straightforward – The guys over at the Extrashot podcast are worth a follow if you want to stay up to date on this subject.

Steve Holland is a former cameraman and now a flight examiner for EuroUSC, one of the companies offering professional drone-pilot qualifications. Interviewed by the guys at Extrashot he told them:

‘There has to be a way to check standards. If you are a cameraman and you’re clumsy and knock your camera over, the likelihood is that it’s only gonna hit the person standing next to you. If you are flying a drone and have a mishap, you have more than two kilos falling out of the sky with a plastic knife on each corner – the rotors. We need to check that people are safe to operate and understand the danger of what they are doing. To get a licence, cameramen need to learn how to fly alongside an experienced pilot – preferably in a field in the middle of nowhere where they can cause no harm. I work as a flight-examiner for a company called EuroUSC. The qualification for our company is called a BNUC and it is achieved by taking a two-day flight school. And then, once you’ve successfully passed that, you are sent away with a template to write a manual – you write the technical specifications of your aircraft and fill in what you are going to be doing and what checks you are going to make because basically you are putting your mitigation in place in the event of a mishap. Once you’ve done that and it’s been accepted, you take a flight exam. This usually lasts about three hours – with an hour doing a pre-site survey to check that everything is ok – and then you spend a further twenty minutes going around checking that the site is safe to operate on. What I’m looking for is that you can fly accurately to points at various distances away, your depth perception’s good, your understanding of your surroundings is good, you are able to fly and that you are confident in what you are doing. You’ll probably fly for about twenty-five minutes and then we’ll have a debrief afterwards to check that you’ve noted everything down correctly and that your checklists are up to date, etc. You must keep your battery logs up to date – your aircraft relies on its battery and you need to know the state that it’s in.’

In the US, as I write, the rules are currently being revised and may have changed by the time you read this. According to the website niemanlab.org, the new proposals are that:

• You will not have to have a pilot’s license to fly one, but you will have to take an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) knowledge test in order to obtain a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) operator’s certificate. The FAA knowledge test that pilots will take has a ton of material that applies to flying a Cessna; that will be stripped out and you’ll only be tested on things that matter to drone operations.

• Your journalism drone will have to be registered with the FAA; this means it will have an ’N’ number, like a plane.

• Your drone may undertake day flights only, and the aircraft must be within the line of site of the operator. You’ll have to stay below five hundred feet.

• You cannot fly over someone who is not directly involved in the operation. That means you’re not going to be flying over crowds at protests. It’s a massive safety issue. Imagine crashing in the middle of an angry demonstration!

• You must get permission from an air-traffic-control facility in airspace of classes ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’. That covers the majority of urban areas, so do your research!

Even if you are qualified and follow the rules, you may still get hassled by the authorities. People are uncomfortable with flying cameras hovering above their heads and may alert the police. Police officers are not aviation-regulation experts and are likely to arrest you and work out the legal niceties later… And it has been happening, just ask Eddie Mitchell – an aerial cameraman who was arrested mid-flight close to Gatwick and then had to watch in horror as the police tried to land his drone.

My thoughts on drones are that they are a great tool, but one we need to use sparingly and with a big dose of common sense – don’t fly one without the correct licences, and be extra-careful in built-up areas and around large groups of people.

If you liked this article then you will love my new book about working as news cameraman and video journalist. Check out the book trailer below and if you like the look of it then order here.

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