3 Things I’ve Learned From Drones

(and the stories behind the lessons)

I’m an instructor on drones and in airplanes so I have lots of opportunities to teach aviation. Every once in a while, though, aviation flips right back around and returns the favour. Here are 3 lessons I’ve learned from drones and the stories behind them.

Lesson 1: There are lots of ways to forget gear.

Here’s the situation. We’re at the office packing up the vehicles to leave for a flight. The flight location is about 3 hours from the office and about 2 hours from civilization (aka a Walmart). Checklist is out and we’re going through the items.
Jack*: “tablets…check, cables…check, micro SD cards… hey Jill, where are the SD cards?”
Jill: “OH GOOD CALL they’re on my desk”
Now at this point, as we later learned, Jill meant this as “they’re on my desk. Now you know where they are so you can go get them” and Jack interpreted it as “Jill says they’re on her desk, so she’ll grab them before we go”.
You can probably see where this is going. Guess who left without SD cards and only realized once they arrived on site. Yep.

*names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty)

The Lesson:
Despite having (and using! these are different things…) a checklist, you can still forget things. Our lesson and remedy from this scenario was to assign packing duties to one person only. Usually this is the PIC (pilot in command) unless they’ve delegated otherwise. That way we avoid confusion and by giving one person the responsibility, more ownership is taken over the gear.

*names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty)

Lesson 2: ATTI mode can smell fear.

Do you know when a great time to fly in ATTI** mode is? I can tell you when isn’t! Just like Murphy always promised, I was on a narrow dock with railings on either side about a storey up from the water surrounding us. The wind was blowing and I had about 20% battery left. Our GPS connection kept dropping off and throwing the aircraft into ATTI mode where it would drift around in the wind requiring constant and varying corrections. It all worked out okay. I landed without incident but between this and the flight from lesson 3, my heart still starts jumping whenever the DJI low battery sound come on.

**ATTI mode on DJI gear means no GPS or vision positioning systems assistance.  Internal sensors only.

The Lesson:
Make your practice sessions some of the hardest flying you do. Fly close to structures and trees and note how your aircraft reacts. Try out all flight modes and make sure you can bring the aircraft back home. Practice reorienting yourself with the aircraft when it’s at a distance. That way, if you encounter these scenarios with the added stress of being on a job site, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it.

Lesson 3: The sun is an obstacle.

Okay, maybe not in the same way as trees or buildings BUT it can be just as limiting. There have been a few flights where I’ve been thankful to have remembered my cheap, non-polarized*** sunglasses but none quite as impactful as the boat flight. As you may have already figured out, we were launching off of the back of a boat. To do this legally in the Vancouver Harbour, we had to be out of the airspace by landing back on the boat by 6:45am; just in time for HeliJet’s first arrival. It was getting close to then so we were getting the last of the shots as the sun crested the mountain range behind us. We had been using the drone’s lights to maintain orientation and line of sight but now, the sun was reflecting off of all the building windows downtown and I lost visual contact. Shortly after this, the aircraft lost GPS, flipped into ATTI mode and my video signal became intermittent. Then the low battery warning kicked in. By the time we regained line of sight and flew back (thanks to some help from the return to home function), I landed on the boat with :48 seconds of power left. It was 6:44. We all lived to fly another day.

*** non-polarized so you can still see screens like the tablets

Lesson learned:
It’s important to think about the sun’s position when you’re flying. You will be staring at the sky for a while, after all. Aside from the obvious issues of sunburn and dehydration, it’s important to note how it may impact your ability to maintain line of sight, even on overcast, but bright days.

BONUS Lesson 4: Weather happens to drones too

This didn’t happen to me, but to a former student of mine.
It’s late November in Vancouver. It’s one of those low overcast and misty days with the temperature just above 0 degrees. This experimental builder had a new drone to test out and popped it up to test flight characteristics. As the aircraft was hovering, he noticed the sound of the motors chan

ged. Bringing it back, he thought there must be an issue with how he had it configured. Upon inspection, he noticed ice adhering to the underside of all of his propellers! The slight pressure change that happens as lift is produced caused the temperature to drop just low enough for the humidity to freeze onto the propellers. Remember learning about icing risk in ground school? Well it can actually happen! So it’s good to be aware and to listen as well as watch for changes in aircraft performance.

Do you have any good lessons you’ve learned through your flying? Let us know!