With CASA’s recent introduction of excluded category in September 2016, I set my sights on becoming a commercial RPAS (drone, UAV, UAS, platform – what do we even call them these days?) operator. I only want to fly a DJI Phantom. Why the need for certified drone training? A Phantom falls in excluded category, so I can do whatever I like...right?
I was very wrong....
I was hesitant about taking the course to begin with. I am glad that I did, and with the knowledge I gained on course, I can say that my original information was incredibly misguided.
Where it all began
With a certain apprehension I walked in to the FlyFreely classroom very unsure as to what to expect about the coming week.
A friend of mine had recently bought himself a new DJI Inspire with all the trimmings. After he grudgingly let me fly it for 5 minutes in his backyard, I decided this was for me. However, I was not sure how 5 minutes of flight time would stack up in a real world, professional unmanned aviation course using the latest technology. I also knew that there was such a thing as Air Law, but I had no idea what terms like standard operating conditions or restricted airspace meant. Was I out of my depth here? What was I getting myself in to?
I soon learned that my concerns were completely unfounded. Our instructor was very approachable and gave us a very detailed rundown about what the coming week would look like. Despite my hesitation, he assured us that we would be taught to industry leading standards and be professional operators by the end of the week. This was irrespective of my lack of flight experience. I was cautiously optimistic, but not entirely convinced.
A Certified Drone Training Course using the Latest Technology
The first thing that stood out to me was our instructor’s experience. With over 20 years in manned aviation, during which time he actively trained hundreds of pilots, this guy was the real deal. It soon became a challenge to find a question that he couldn’t answer. The whole class tried, and the whole class failed. Every attempt was met with a clear and easy to understand answer and often with an amusing personal anecdote to drive the point home.
After introductions we got set up in our training room. The facilities were comfortable and functional. When I hit that critical point of information overload, I could step out and grab a great cup of coffee.
And then the course began. Initially I decided, OK yes – I was way out of my league. Our trainer started with a rundown of the industry and the relevant regulatory bodies. Very soon the acronyms started flying and I felt like my head might explode. Then something interesting happened. Our instructor expertly broke down the information and relayed it in common English. It made sense! I was then able to log into the online course portal and decode the information myself. And again…it made sense.
"In each case, it was very quickly apparent that yes – knowing this piece of information would make me safer and more effective at my job"
Once I had the realisation that all the acronyms and jargon meant something, things became easier. Through a combination of context and concise explanation, these complex subjects became meaningful. Do not tell my high school teacher this, but I started to enjoy the process. The things we were learning about are very practical and highly applicable. In each case, it was very quickly clear that yes – knowing this piece of information would make me safer and more effective at my job. The course content was well structured too. Before we covered the topic, it may as well have been written in hieroglyph. Afterwards, it made sense. And I could quickly come back to anything wasn’t sure on and fill in the gaps. The online course portal was easy to use and intuitively designed.
Information (not-so-much) overload
As a result of this streamlined process, we covered more in the week more information than I thought was possible. And by the end, I had a good working knowledge of the broad range of subjects that we covered. I had never even heard of operational meteorology, yet a week later I now know what a TAF (Terminal Aerodrome Forecast), a METAR (Aerodrome Meteorological Report) and a TTF (Trend Type Forecast) are and where to find them. More importantly, I know how to use them to inform my mission planning and risk management requirements.
We also covered how to communicate and cooperate with the manned aviation world. Again, this is not a trivial subject. Before this course I had intended to use a public park nearby my house to train myself on the new phantom I intend to buy. It was a public park and I was only running recreationally. I jumped on to the CASA website and though it was a little difficult to get my head around, it did not seem like I would be doing anything wrong. Besides, I had seen many people flying their drones down there, so it must be OK.
"It turns out that if I had of practised drone acrobatics in my local park, I would be violating Federal Laws"
Coming back to my opening statement, A Phantom falls in excluded category, so I can do whatever I like...right? I now know this is very very very wrong. It turns out that said park is in the approach and departure path for the local aerodrome. CASA gives some guidelines as to how to work this out, however for a substantial number of locations this is simply incorrect advice. Are they referring to a visual approach or an instrument approach? Are there alternate flight paths in between, i.e. aerodrome to hospital?
These are very serious questions with very real ramifications. It turns out that if I had of practised drone acrobatics in my local park, I would be violating Federal Law. We also learned that this is an offence of strict liability. This means that not knowing that said law exists is not relevant for a prosecution. That is 50 penalty units right there. Simply put, this course saved my bacon.
This was one of many forays we would make into the convoluted world of unmanned aviation over the week. It became increasingly clear that while some might see drones as ‘toys’, the regulators don’t. As a professional operator, the onus is on me to know my stuff.
It turns out that the in’s and outs of Air Law are highly complex. My own attempts to work it out were not only very misguided, but very likely to be dangerous. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to get knowledgeable before I landed (or crashed) myself into trouble.
"I want to know how to operate my drone safely and effectively in this context, and I can guarantee the 300 people on board the nearby Qantas flight care that I do."
In addition to Air Law, we were instructed on many other critical concepts of drone operation. I initially questioned the need for me to know seemingly abstract subjects like aerodynamics, component electronics, GNSS, battery configuration or flight control systems. By the end of the week I understood that these topics are highly important. It is concerning to say the least that I might have ventured into commercial drone operations without a working knowledge of any one of these topics, let alone all of them.
I won’t lie, this course was difficult. The topics we covered were complex, both in breadth and depth, and the application is challenging. There is a large body of knowledge involved in aircraft operations. The subset of information that is relevant to unmanned aviation, while much much smaller, is still significant. Trying to cover the critical concepts in this body of knowledge in 5 days is a big job. Fortunately, FlyFreely’s course is well designed and delivered making the process of getting this information on board a manageable undertaking. When I came unstuck, our instructor was immediately on hand with a variety of different teaching approaches to bring me back up to speed. On several occasions I felt overwhelmed or overloaded, but in every case I was quickly put on track again.
The practical component was fantastic. We were using the latest technology and had one on one tutoring for the whole duration. FlyFreely's certified drone training program uses competency based training methodology. There is no tick and flick here. With a portion of each day dedicated to skills development, I very quickly realised there is a definite finesse required. On the first day I was flat out keeping the drone stationary, but by the end I was navigating the training tasks with confidence.
Final Thoughts - RPAS: Technology that Soars
Over the course of the week an over-arching theme became apparent. Once you leave the ground, you are operating in functional airspace. This is a whole other world of law and protocol. Importantly, you are now interacting with other aircraft and airspace users, and most importantly, with living people on board. While at first my drone seemed innocuous enough, I now understand it has the very real potential to a) get me into serious trouble, and most importantly b) cause real damage to other aircraft. I want to know how to operate my drone safely and effectively in this context, and I can guarantee the 300 people on board the nearby Qantas flight care that I do.
As an aspiring UAV professional, this course was invaluable. This industry is very new and evolving rapidly as an extremely broad range of sectors begin to see the value drones can provide. If you are looking to move in this field, I cannot understate how critical it is to have quality training. This is an investment in yourself and your business capabilities, why not make it count.
In short, if quality and safety are key considerations for your operations, do your certified drone training with FlyFreely.