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Unmanned, manned pilots face similar decision makingUnmanned, manned pilots face similar decision making

Whether it’s what kind of drone or manned aircraft to buy, deciding when and where to fly, or pricing extra equipment to add to the craft, manned pilots and remote pilots face similar decision-making processes, AOPA Senior Director of UAS Programs Kat Swain explained April 8 during a seminar at the AOPA Program Pavilion at the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland, Florida.

Kat Swain, leader of AOPA's You Can fly drone initiative, and members of DroneNerds present on the similar decision-making process faced by manned and unmanned pilots. Photo by Alyssa J. Miller.

Swain, an experienced flight instructor and remote pilot, opened dialogue with attendees (manned and unmanned pilots, as well as pilots who are both) by using the similarities between the two fields to discuss drone-related topics. Attendees learned about purchasing decisions, the different types of drones, and aeronautical decision making. DroneNerds, a retailer of DJI products hosting a drone cage at AOPA’s campus, showcased the Phantom 4, Mavic, and Inspire drones.

Swain explained three broad categories for drones—micro drones, which are best for learning how to fly because “it really gives you that know-how”; prosumer drones geared toward those who fly for recreation or are considering moving into the commercial realm; and high-end commercial/professional drones. In much the same way as a manned pilot wouldn’t start learning how to fly in a jet, those learning how to fly drones should start at the lower end of the product range as well because they will get a better feel for how to manipulate the controls to fly the drone (think of it as how pilots develop stick-and-rudder skills). So don't discount what you can learn from micro drones, often considered "toys."

Just as there are different types of manned aircraft, like fixed-wing and rotorcraft, there are fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones, and they serve different purposes. Swain explained that fixed-wing drones resemble remote control aircraft and often are used to aid in farming and conduct large surveys, whereas multi-rotor drones work better for aerial photography and inspections.

Those considering purchasing a drone—or any aircraft for that matter—should consider the mission and their goals, the price range, and the payload type and weight, Swain said. Drones range in price from “a couple hundred dollars to several hundred thousand dollars,” she said. The more equipment you add, the higher the price.

Swain discussed keys to a safe drone flight, mirroring many of the considerations and decisions that manned pilots make when approaching their flights. For example, both need to evaluate the environment they will be flying in, pay attention to airspace and notams, and know their personal limitations. Swain said that the top factor in drone accidents is the same in manned aircraft accidents—pilot error.

She also emphasized the importance of using or creating a checklist when operating a drone. Checklist items should include the perimeter within which to operate the drone, landmarks that could be potential obstacles, and emergency landing sites.

Above all, Swain counseled, pilots should ease their way into flying drones, starting low and slow with lower-cost drones to get a feel for how to operate them. “Don’t rush to failure,” she said. “Go low and slow to learn what your platform can do.”

Swain leads AOPA's You Can Fly drone initiative, which includes drone podcasts and webinars, discounts to the DARTdrones Part 107 Test Prep online course, and more. AOPA launched drone membership in early 2017 to welcome remote pilots into the aviation community. The association also offers drone insurance and a free biweekly AOPA Drone Pilot email newsletter.

Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Miller

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor
AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.
Topics: You Can Fly, Unmanned Aircraft, Sun n Fun

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