What Makes A Good Drone Pilot?

What Makes A Good Drone Pilot?

The only people that have ever asked me that question were people who truly cared about becoming a better UAS pilot. Normally it's people with very little experience but a real passion for drones. Other times it’s people with some good experience who are just hoping to hear some good tips that they haven’t heard before. Either way, my answer is the same.

Being a good pilot is less about what you do and more about what you don't do.

DJI M600 Pro  with  Z30  camera on an inspection 

DJI M600 Pro with Z30 camera on an inspection 

I’ve been complimented the most on my piloting when I’ve been able to recover or maintain myself in a hazardous situation. This could be anything such as flying in strong winds, finding your way back with low or no visibility, avoiding a flock of seagulls, or coming in with a bad landing zone and a twitchy bird. It could even be something as simple as getting a tricky shot in an area filled with power lines, trees, or close buildings. And, although some of those things can be tricky at times, I wouldn't say that's what makes me a good pilot. Being able to fly in a hazardous situation is only 50% of what makes someone a good pilot. The other half is what people don't even see, it's what people don't talk about. It's not glamorous, but 50% of what makes you a good pilot is what you choose not to do.

The hard part of being a good pilot

Being able to get out of a tough situation is great, but what can sometimes be even harder is to recognize a bad situation before it happens and make the call to not enter it. This means choosing not to fly in wind that might be too hazardous, or choosing not to fly because of the amount of birds in the air. This could also mean choosing not to fly due to some interference that you strongly suspect will get worse the closer you get to your subject. It could even be choosing not to fly because of how your drone is responding to your stick inputs. The best way to get out of a hazardous situation is to never get into a hazardous situation in the first place. Getting good at doing this is crucial as a drone pilot. Starting off, it may be hard to recognize these situations or avoid them. It's very important as a UAS pilot that you learn the capabilities and limitations of your drone. How it responds in ideal conditions, how it respond in less-than-ideal conditions, and how it responds in hazardous conditions. Part of this is just experience. As an ambitious pilot, you're naturally going to want to push your boundaries more and more to get better shots, better data, or better stories. Pushing your limits is fine, as long as you do it consciously and strategically. Sure, at some point you may push too far and the consequences won't be nice, but that's just a part of the process. It's up to the pilot to determine if the risk is worth it. Sometimes it can be hard to say no, especially when a client, boss, or another pilot is telling you to fly. But as a UAS pilot, especially those with a Part 107 certification, you are obligated to stand your ground and make the call that you know is right. This is something that many pilots, including myself, stand by and support in the aerial community.

Filming with the  DJI Inspire 1  and  X3  camera

Filming with the DJI Inspire 1 and X3 camera

The first 50% of being a good piloting

Okay, we get it. Say no to dangerous flying. But what about the first 50%? What about being able to handle yourself in rough conditions? Yes, being able to fly in bad conditions and get out of a tough spot is still a very important part of being a pilot. When other pilots want to improve their ability to handle the rough stuff, my suggestion is to work on three equally important things:

  • Your ability to manipulate the sticks with sensitivity and accuracy

  • Your ability to predict the drone's behavior during environmental influence (wind, change in altitude, magnetic interference...)

  • Your ability to think ahead

If I’m going to be flying close to some power lines or a wind turbine then I try to think ahead and plan an escape route. If a strong gust of wind comes along, am I going to go under the power lines or over them? If I need to perform an emergency landing in a field of grass, then where can land that is most level or has the least amount of grass so my props and motors are less likely to get tangled or damaged? If you’re always thinking ahead, you should have a much easier time compensating when things do go wrong. It’s all about adapting to your situation as fast as possible, and also making sure you act decisively. Starting to land in a tricky area but then not committing to your landing can put you in a rough spot.

If we were to dig deeper, I would also add reaction time and knowing your strengths and weaknesses to the list. Good reaction time is self-explanatory. The only way to get better reaction time on an sUAS is by flying it more. Nothing beats experience and practice, and that's unfortunately something that you can't get by doing online research. You have to get out there and fly.

Confidence vs. Skill

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses... This is a very important aspect of flying, but not one that people talk about much. And when I say this, I'm not talking about knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your drone, or even the strengths and weaknesses of your piloting abilities. I'm specifically talking about your confidence level. That's right, your level of confidence will drastically affect how you fly. You could be a very talented pilot but if you have very low confidence, you will never fly to the most of your potential. On the other hand, if you are very new to piloting and don't have a lot of experience but do have a lot of confidence, you can quickly get yourself into trouble or commit to something that you can't deliver. Understanding the reality of your skill level in comparison to your confidence level is very important and it's something that you should try to figure out as quickly as possible, especially if you are new to flying drones. This is why so many people crash their drone so quickly after buying it. Their confidence level was way above their actual piloting abilities. Trying to match your confidence level with your actual skill level can be a very important part of being a good pilot.

In conclusion, there are several things that make up a good pilot. A talented UAS pilot is both very familiar with the sticks and knowledgeable in the field. It's important to know how to get out of a sticky situation, and even better to not enter one at all. Know the limitations of your aircraft, and know your limitations as a pilot. Plan ahead as much as you can, and always be prepared for things to go wrong. When things do go wrong, which they inevitably will, then prepare to problem solve until you are safely on the ground. Finally, commit to your decision. Second-guessing yourself and trying to bail out while you are in the middle of making a critical move will only end poorly. But remember, the key to being a good pilot is to be able to get out of hazardous situations, and the key to getting out of hazardous situations is to avoid getting in one all together.

Fly smart, fly safe, and get the shot!

Members of the Aero Drone team on the job. From left to right: Pilot, Camera Operator, and Visual Observer/Field Manager.

Members of the Aero Drone team on the job. From left to right: Pilot, Camera Operator, and Visual Observer/Field Manager.

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