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Drone flying 101


With a small investment and a little practice you too can “slip the surly bonds of earth” (Magee, 1941.)

Small unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as SUAS or Drones, are fast becoming ubiquitous in our modern existence and they are a valuable tool throughout agriculture. You can remotely check on crops or cattle, inspect the roof of a barn, get a birds-eye view of a landscape design or even take a virtual tour of a prospective parcel of land. With all of this, the utilization is really still in its infancy and in the future you will probably be using them to monitor plant nutrition, irrigation, do remote seeding and many other tasks that haven’t even been thought of yet. But with this new tool comes guidelines for proper use and even strict laws governing who, what, when, where and why you can use it.

First off, as soon as you leave the ground in any vehicle, you are in airspace that is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration and any vehicle in that airspace has to be registered with the FAA.  The registration costs $5 and is available online at: https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/registration/ . When registering your “Drone” you answer a few questions about the drone. You will receive a number that must be displayed on the drone itself for identification purposes.

The next requirement is probably the one that many folks wanting to get started using a drone aren’t going to want to hear. You have to get a remote pilot certificate. The rules are contained within Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations and state that if you are 16 years old or older and using the SUAS for anything other than a hobby, you must have a remote pilot certificate to legally fly the SUAS, even if it is over your own property. The FAA defines “hobby” as doing it for recreation within eyesite at an altitude of less than 400 feet. So any time you use it while on the clock, for anything that is related to commerce, or associated with any agricultural endeavor you must have a remote pilot certificate with a SUAS rating.

If you already have a Part 61 certificate, you can take a free online exam to receive SUAS certification. If you are not already a pilot, you can get a remote pilot certificate by successfully passing a FAA aeronautical knowledge test and undergoing a background check. The knowledge test is available at approved testing centers (including on OSU-Stillwater campus) and costs $150 (Important note: if you take the test and fail, it is another $150 to retest.) The FAA has a great deal of information online to provide answers to questions about the rules for sUAVs, study guides for taking the test, practice tests and additional help on the aeronautical test as well as information on safe flight operations. https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/part_107/remote_pilot_cert/

Links to Oklahoma testing centers: http://candidate.catstest.com/searchresults.php?testCode=UAG&state=OK

Below are the general rules regarding operating SUAS (drones) as outlined in Part 107.

  • Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, at takeoff including payload
  • Fly in Class G airspace*
  • Keep the unmanned aircraft within visual line-of-sight*
  • Fly at or below 400 feet*
  • Fly during daylight or civil twilight*
  • Fly at or under 100 mph*
  • Yield right-of-way to manned aircraft*
  • Do not fly directly over people*
  • Do not fly from a moving vehicle, unless in a sparsely populated area*

It is illegal to fly anywhere that you might interfere with law enforcement or other emergency personnel or vehicles, specifically including in or around a wildfire firefighting operation.

There are waivers to most of the rules governing SUAS operations that you can apply for through the FAA Drone Zone website: https://faadronezone.faa.gov

Additional helpful resources for getting your certification:

  • I found several helpful YouTube clips on specific areas of the FAA test. They can really help explain various concepts.
  • When I prepared to take the test, I purchased an app for my phone that provided practice tests (including every question on my exam.)
  • The FAA B4UFly app for android or iOS is a helpful pre-flight tool that includes weather info, airspace, interactive flight planner and up-to-the-minute information on airspace restrictions : https://www.faa.gov/uas/where_to_fly/b4ufly/

 

Drones seem like they are a toy, and often are sold with other electronic toys in the store, but they operate in a way that has to be regulated in order to maintain public safety. If you violate the rules governing their use, specifically not obtaining a proper certificate, you are violating federal law. If something happens while you are illegally operating a drone it puts you in a precarious place legally.

Tips on operating a drone.

  • Use it like a tool and not like a toy.
  • Know your drone and how it operates. Practice with your controller without flying until you know all of the controls without having to think about them; when something goes wrong you probably won’t have much time to think about the controls.
  • Remember Newton’s Laws, especially the one about objects in motion staying in motion. These things DON’T stop on a dime. Be sure and leave plenty of room to stop and maneuver.
  • Your aircraft looks cute and unassuming, but it is potentially dangerous. It is often flying at high speeds (remember Newton’s F=ma) and the blades rpm can be as high as a gas weed eater. Drones can cause damage to structures and people, so safe operation must be maintained at all times.
  • Go low, go slow. As the drone gets closer to the ground, reduce the speed to maintain safety, control and better video. Some drones, including most DJI models, have a slow speed mode that will allow for more precise movements.
  • Whenever possible, have a second set of eyes helping you keep track of the drone or any potential hazards.
  • Moving air bounces and causes blowback and turbulence. Air kicking up from the ground or nearby objects can greatly effect a drones flight and can cause loss of momentary control and even crash if the aircraft is in a tight spot.
  • Trees, buildings and other structures will block, redirect or concentrate winds and create unexpected conditions that will throw the drone off course. Fly with caution and check out such an area before trying to do a video recording run or other precision maneuver. An example of this is at The Botanic Garden at OSU where two perpendicular lines of trees have a break where they come together. These trees can provide nice smooth air when in their wind shadow, but even light winds from certain angles can be funneled to that open break at such a speed that will stop a drone in its tracks.
  • Don’t blindly trust the GPS and positioning cameras on the drone; it will drift from where it is hovering.
  • If you crash, and odds are you will at some point, replace your blades. Blades will often crack and are far less expensive than replacing a drone. A crack can cause the blade to shatter when it starts spinning at 12,000 rpm which, in turn, caused your drone to come crashing to the ground from 300 feet in the air.
  • If someone complains about your flight, try to allay their concerns. If you cannot, no flight, video or photo is worth upsetting someone. Fly politely and unobtrusively.
  • When shooting video, think of the aircraft as moving a mobile camera platform and not flying. The perspective shift makes for much smoother and more usable video.
  • Smooth motions work the best for video. Don’t try and fight the drone to do exactly what you want. Jerky flight due to trying to stay exactly on course looks unprofessional and  is unpleasant to watch.
  • Sometimes all you need for a great video shot from a drone is a great angle. It doesn’t always have to be moving.
  • Sometimes a cool moving shot from a drone is up or down and doesn’t have to move forward.
  • An inexpensive neutral density filter (ND filter) that you can purchase online reduces the amount of light through the lens of the drone’s camera and will lower the shutter speed on camera and keep it from flickering.
  • If your drone has a focusing camera be sure and select where you want to focus.
  • Turn on the histogram, if available, and be ready to adjust the brightness of the image manually.
  • Don’t forget to take still images. They are higher quality than grabbing a frame of moving video.
  • Programming waypoints is a great way to automate your flight so you can concentrate on the camera angle.
  • Have fun with it and don’t be afraid of experimenting with your shots.

 

If you have any questions about certification, drones, or aerial photography or video feel free to contact me at mr.gragg@okstate.edu or 405-744-4075.

Kevin Gragg
Senior TV Producer/Director - Oklahoma Gardening
Agricultural Communications Services