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 it was 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.

What’s New in Global Mapper 19.1

Here’s a recording of this hour-long presentation on What’s New in Global Mapper 19.1.

Among the capabilities that were showcased in this presentation are:

  • The redesigned and consolidated Attribute Editor which now includes the attribute joining and calculating tools
  • Multivariate or compound querying incorporating user-defined expressions and functions
  • Expanded drag-and-drop window docking
  • A new option to create 3D line features from one or more path profile views
  • Enhanced 3D Viewer navigation
  • The ability to create a 3D mesh, complete with photo-realistic textures in the LiDAR Module’s Pixels-to-Point tool
  • And much more

Pixels-to-Points™: Easy Point Cloud Generation from Drone Images

Point cloud generated from 192 drone images using the Pixels-to-Points tool
A point cloud generated by EngeSat’s Laurent Martin using the new Pixels-to-Points™ tool in version 19 of the LiDAR Module. The LiDAR Module tool analyzed 192 high resolution drone images to create this high-density point cloud.

When we have a new product release like the version 19 of the LiDAR Module that comes with the Pixels-to-Points™ tool, it’s always exciting to see that feature in action for the first time outside of the Blue Marble office. Our South and Central American reseller Laurent Martin from EngeSat was quick to try the new Pixels-to-Points tool for himself using drone data collected by his peer Fabricio Pondian.

The new Pixels-to-Points tool uses the principles of photogrammetry, generating high-density point clouds from overlapping images. It’s a functionality that makes the LiDAR Module a must-have addition to the already powerful Global Mapper, especially for UAV experts.

Below, screenshots captured by Laurent illustrate the simple step-by-step process of creating a point cloud using the Pixels-to-Points tool and some basic point cloud editing using other LiDAR Module tools.

1. Loading drone images into the LiDAR Module

The collection of images loaded into the LiDAR Module must contain information that can be overlapped. The Pixels-to-Points tool analyzes the relationship between recognizable objects in adjacent images to determine the three-dimensional coordinates of the corresponding surface. In this particular example of the Pixels-to-Points process, 192 images are used.
The flight path of the UAV and the locations of each photo can be viewed over a raster image of the project site.

2. Calculating the point cloud from loaded images

192 high-resolution images are selected in this particular example. The tool will give an estimated time of completion, which depends on the size of the images and number of images.
The Calculating Cloud/Mesh dialogue displays statistics of the images as they are analyzed and stitched together by the Pixels-to-Points tool.
An alert window pops up when the process is complete.

3. Viewing the generated point cloud

A new layer of the generated point cloud is now in the control center.
A close up of the final processing result with the orthoimage.
A close up of the final result with the new point cloud generated from the 192 images.
A 3D view of the resulting point cloud.
A view of the point cloud colorized by elevation
A cross-sectional view of the point cloud using the Path Profile tool

4. Classifying the point cloud

Points can be reclassified automatically or manually using LiDAR Module tools. Here, the point cloud is reclassified as mostly ground points.

5. Creating an elevation grid and contours from the point cloud

With the point cloud layer selected, a digital terrain model can be generated by clicking the Create Elevation Grid button.
A cross-sectional view of the digital terrain model using the Path Profile tool
Contours can be generated from the digital terrain model by simply clicking the Create Contours button.

A quick and easy process

In just a few steps, Laurent was able to create a high-density point cloud from 192 images, reclassify the points, and create a Digital Terrain Model. It’s a prime example of how easy version 19 of the LiDAR Module and the new Pixels-to-Points tool are to use. Check out EngeSat’s full article on the release of LiDAR Module.

The Foils and Follies of Drone Data Collection

Drone collects imageryChelsea E | Projections
A drone flies over the Blue Marble Geographics headquarters in Hallowell, Maine collecting imagery to be used in software testing.

Over the past few months, the Blue Marble team has taken on the challenge of collecting drone imagery of our property for testing exciting new features coming soon to Global Mapper. As we began to step into the fairly new commercial UAV field, we realized that there are few assumptions we can make. First of all, there is a learning curve that comes with simply flying a drone to take pictures or collect imagery. There are also a number of legal hurdles, safety concerns, and practical challenges to consider. We needed guidance as we began this initiative, from which we learned a few important lessons.

Drone Flight Concerns and Considerations

Though it appears to be a relatively simple technical challenge, flying a drone has legal and safety considerations that were readily apparent to us but may not be common knowledge. Our first concern was that the Blue Marble headquarters are only about a mile and half, as the crow (or should I say UAV) flies, from the Augusta State Airport. Small planes fly overhead frequently and quite low at times. We were not sure if our building was located near banned airspace. Our second concern was that our property abuts the Hall-Dale elementary school playground. A location that is full of children three or four times a day during business hours. What if we crashed in the school yard while children were at recess? What a PR nightmare.

These concerns about the airport and school property were enough to stall us from simply buying or building a drone, and prompted us to seek guidance. Fortunately for us, the University of Maine at Augusta offers an unmanned aerial vehicle training course taught by certified pilots. A quick call to one of the faculty members for more information resulted in the gentlemen visiting our offices to conduct some test flights and to share a bit of their knowledge with us. We learned a great deal even from our first test.

Programming drone flight pathChelsea E | Projections
Certified UAV pilot Dan Leclair uses his laptop to set up a flight path for a drone to fly over the Blue Marble Geographics headquarters in Hallowell, Maine.

Setting Up the Drone for Flight

Certified pilots Dan Leclair and Greg Gilda joined us at our office on a beautiful, clear and wind-free day in early October. They confirmed that we could fly over our property with some stipulations, despite our location near a commercial airport. As a precaution, the gentlemen brought with them a hand-held radio to monitor pilot communication in the area as we set up our flight path. They also reassured us that there was little chance of the drone flying off of our property during school recess, since the drone would be programmed and flown on autopilot. Dan and Greg shared a litany of information about how the drones now have homing devices, automatically avoid collisions with structures, and fly on a pre-programmed flight pattern. If, for some reason, it did fly over school property, we could manually fly it back. We also learned that the drone must stay within our view to remain in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation, which was no problem. We weren’t flying a large area anyway.

As we chose and programmed the drone flight path with a laptop, the pilots focused on a very common issue for us GIS folks — proper elevation above ground. Since we are located in the descent path of planes landing at the airport, we needed to keep the drone relatively low to avoid any potential, and of course unwanted, collisions with an aircraft. We decided that we would fly at 100 feet above ground on a path that was 1,793 feet long and would take about 3 minutes.

Drone cameraChelsea E | Projections
We also set up the drone camera for the light conditions, and programmed it to capture an image every two seconds during the flight.

The software the pilots used had some short comings in that the user had to manually select points for the back-and-forth flight path we wanted. As a software guy, this seemed tedious. I would rather draw a quick polygon or box around my area of interest and have that converted to a flight pattern. Perhaps that could be a new feature for Global Mapper Mobile in the future? In this case, our area of interest was our building, so it did not take long to manually designate the flight pattern by selecting waypoints for the drone to fly back and forth. We also set up the drone camera for the light conditions, and programmed it to capture an image every two seconds during the flight. One practical lesson we learned was that a good staging area for the laptop is preferable on a sunny day. We used the back of an SUV for the shade, so we could see the laptop screen and comfortably program the software.

After a bit of work we were ready to fly.

Rotors are attached to droneChelsea E | Projections
Certified UAV pilot Greg Gilda puts the rotors on the drone before it’s sent on a flight path over the Blue Marble headquarters.

Flying the Drone and Collecting Data

We set the drone on a circular landing pad made of nylon near the back of our property. Greg attached the rotor blades, very carefully I might add. The blades attach rather easily to the quad copter by snapping into place. Dan explained that this step was done before turning the drone on, saying something to the effect of “you don’t want to lose a finger”.

Once the UAV was ready to fly we all stepped back. Dan launched it into the air with the touch of a button or two, and the drone began its pre-programmed flight path. For those experienced pilots, you might notice that we did not discuss ground control. More on that in a later blog entry, I suppose, but these early tests were not including that. The flight went seamlessly and Dan only took over manual control as he brought the drone in for a landing — a personal preference of his.

Everything seemed to progress well but we quickly learned that the drone ended up capturing only video (see below) and not still photography. A few more attempts later, we sadly learned that we would not be able to collect still imagery that day. Apparently there was some incompatibility with the flight planning software and the drone. Not to fear, they agreed to return another day after a software update to collect the imagery. So perhaps the most important lesson of the day was that, despite the best laid plans of mice and men, things do not always go as planned with drone data collection. If you’re interested in learning some more about the foils and follies of drone data collection visit this handy resource:  http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/

We’ll have more to share with you on this process and, of course, what we are doing with the data soon.

 


Patrick Cunningham


Patrick Cunningham is the President of Blue Marble Geographics. He has two decades of experience in software development, marketing, sales, consulting, and project management.  Under his leadership, Blue Marble has become the world leader in coordinate conversion software (the Geographic Calculator) and low cost GIS software with the 2011 acquisition of Global Mapper. Cunningham is Chair of the Maine GIS Users Group, a state appointed member of the Maine Geolibrary Board, a member of the NEURISA board, a GISP and holds a masters in sociology from the University of New Hampshire.