The Path to Becoming a UAS Pilot

Chelsea E | Projections
Dan Leclair, one of the flight instructors of the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) program at the University of Maine at Augusta, prepares to fly a drone over the Blue Marble Geographics headquarters in October of 2017.

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 1


With any new endeavor, you often start out with little idea of the depth of your lack of knowledge until you get going. Last year, as we started working with drone imagery for the Pixels-to-Points tool here at Blue Marble, we realized we were going to need to actually do our own flying to really generate the kinds of quality testing data we wanted to be working with for developing structure-from-motion tools and other new processes that take advantage of drone generated data. To fly commercially, we knew we needed a Part 107 certified remote pilot on staff and after some discussion we decided that I would become that pilot. We all knew there was a knowledge test involved and that it would be a good idea to take a prep course, but we were at the point where we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

Luckily, we are about a mile from the University of Maine at Augusta, which happens to be developing an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) program within the Aviation department. We had met Dan Leclair, one of the flight instructors, at a local conference and realized we had some knowledge to exchange. He and Greg Jolda, another of the instructors, came over to the Blue Marble headquarters with one of their drones to do a flight around our grounds collecting images that we could run through early versions of the Pixels-to-Points tools. Now, where we are located specifically, just happens to be on the approach to the Augusta State Airport. Dan and Greg gave us a crash course in wind speeds, flight waivers, radio communication, and airspace ceilings … or roughly enough to make a GIS practitioner’s head spin in under five minutes. The drone wasn’t even out of the case yet!  There’s an old saying that an expert is someone who knows a lot about a little. We know maps, geodetics, and data analysis here and we were realizing that this was going to have a large learning curve ahead; I was going to need to become an expert in a whole other field.

Chelsea E | Projections
Greg Jolda, an instructor of the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) program at the University of Maine at Augusta, adjusts a rotor on a drone at the Blue Marble Geographics headquarters in October of 2017.

Class: Learning to become a pilot at night

Fast forward to my first night of class. The course would be two nights a week for eight weeks, in three-hour class meetings, led by Dan and Greg.  It had been rather a long time since I had been on the other side of the lectern in a classroom. Let’s just say laptops were not common the last time I took a class. I was rather excited; I love learning new things and applying that knowledge. The room started to fill up and we started getting to know each other with some introductions. We were from many different fields: foresters, engineers, radio tower operators, real estate agents, photographers, media company producers, scientists, and even some self-starters looking for a new line of work. Basically, everyone there was looking into a new area. Going over the course syllabus and reading materials, it was readily apparent what we didn’t know: A LOT.  General regulations, pilot certification, airspace classification and restrictions, aeronautical chart interpretation (Yay, maps!), airport operations, weather, weight and balance, aircraft performance, radio communications, aeronautical decision-making, emergency procedures, maintenance, pilot physiology, on and on.

Every topic comes with vocabulary specific to flight operations, even getting into nitty gritty stuff such as how to pronounce numbers over a radio and how to read a weather report written in shorthand code. Throughout the weeks, we covered all of these topics and more. Every time we entered a topic it was a good education in just how little you can imagine is involved outside the things you already know. We found that everyone in the class had their own challenges. Being a generally spatial thinker, the mapping sections and airspace designations I found simpler than some of the more abstract bits of weather such as the different types of clouds and how to read them. Others struggled with airspace but had no trouble with the physics-heavy sections of loading, altitude density of air, etc. There’s a wide variety of topics involved and it takes time to assimilate the sheer breadth of new information that’s covered on the exams.

Chart of airspace
A chart illustrating airspace published in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.

One of the questions a lot of my friends and colleagues have asked me is: “How do you practice flying at a night class?” It makes sense, it’s a drone pilot class, you’re going to learn to fly, right? Well, no. You don’t actually have to have flown a single minute to become a Part 107 certified pilot. The test is purely knowledge-based, and is intended to ensure that drone pilots know how to operate safely within the federal airspace. In our class we did actually spend some time flying small Blade Inductrix drones indoors with full size Spektrum DX8 transmitters towards the end of the course. We also spent some time talking about the basic mechanics of fixed-wing and multi-rotor builds, and their control systems. This is not really essential to prepare for the Part 107 exam, but it is good material to cover.

So, at the time of writing, I’ve arrived at the end of the course. Tomorrow morning I go on for my exam. I have been taking practice exams on the Gleim test prep system until I’ve started to recognize some of the 900 practice questions. I have never failed a practice exam, so I’m feeling good.

Testing: Knowing your airspace, safety, and weather

I passed.

From the questions on the exam, it’s very clear where drone pilots have been having issues:  airspace & operations! The breakdown of questions I encountered was about 50 questions on airspace and general safety practices and the last 10 questions on weather. I did pretty well on the test, passing comfortably. Going back through the review of things I missed (which it lets you do upon completion), I knew which questions I was shaky on. There was one question on an airport-related topic that I know I had never seen the answer to before. The test procedure itself is pretty simple, if you’ve taken practice tests on Gleim, you’ll be right at home on the FAA test system, it looks and feels pretty much exactly the same. The difference is that in Gleim, you work off of digital graphics for the charts and diagrams, and in the actual test you’re working out of a paperback copy of the Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement for Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, and Private Pilot (FAA-CT-8080-2G), which honestly, is easier to read than the digital practice graphics.

If you aren’t familiar with either, you have a simple panel-based interface on screen. Down the left you have your list of questions 1-60, and the main part of the screen has your questions and possible answers which are multiple choice and three options. You can mark questions to come back to later, which is very handy for taking a pass through and answering the ones that you are 100% confident in and then going back to spend more time on the others. I found two questions that I knew I would need to spend more time, because of the tricky wording. Even after spending some time looking through the book for some hints on those two, I was done in under 40 minutes. Having an hour and 20 minutes left, I used the opportunity to read through the entire test again and double check all my answers. I didn’t find any that I disagreed with myself on, so confidently I ended the exam to submit, the results go straight to the FAA, and I was immediately notified that I passed. All in all, a relatively procedural exam process after much preparation.

Getting the certification card in the mail was a relief after all that time studying, preparing, and then ultimately waiting.

Certification: Waiting for the card after weeks of preparing

You walk out of the testing facility with a stamped certificate that you passed the test, then the waiting starts. This certificate only states that you passed the test, it’s not actually your Part 107 certificate. You can follow your certification progress through the FAA’s IACRA website. In about 48 hours, it updated to show that it knew I passed the test, then over the next few weeks it updated as my results were passed around in the FAA systems, until eventually, I was granted a printable temporary certificate I could fly with. With this temporary certificate, there is no certificate number you can use to fill out waiver applications, but at that point I could legally fly. My certificate card arrived about six weeks after I took the test, backdated to the test date. Getting the card in the mail was a relief after all that time studying, preparing, and then ultimately waiting. I learned more than I could have imagined at the start and like I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I now have a better idea just how much more there is to learn.

 


Sam Knight

 

Sam Knight is the Director of Product Management for Blue Marble Geographics. With Blue Marble for more than 14 years, Sam has lead hundreds of GIS and Geodetics courses and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences, trying to make tricky geodetics concepts accessible at a practical level.

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