“You get to play with drones all day?! That sounds fun! I want your job!”
If you are in any subset of the drone industry, you have more than likely heard this at trade shows, conferences, Thanksgiving dinner, or while checking out at Trader Joe’s. (Occasionally the friendly chit-chat actually goes beyond “Oh, good choice! The new oat milk is SO good!”) Each time we hear it, we smile and nod, as all of the stressors associated with UAV work run through our minds. Here, I will discuss some of the factors that have caused rather dramatic spikes in my heart rate. (See image below)
Local Airspace Curveballs
Prior to any flight, UAV pilots must check the airspace they will be operating in and obtain any necessary approvals and waivers from the FAA. If there are small airports near the flight area, it is good practice to let their Air Traffic Control personnel know that you will be flying. Even if the airspace looks clear on AirMap (or something similar), it is still possible to run into unexpected issues.
On a recent job along the coast, we noticed a low-flying advertising plane as we arrived at the site — you know…the ones that tow huge banners along the beach? We assumed it was flying out of the small, local airport, but when we called to get some information and work out a plan, they told us it was probably just taking off from a field. Long story short, we found the owner of the company, thanks to word-of-mouth in a small town, and he and the pilot were more than happy to work with us to make sure everyone stayed safe. (This is not always the case. We have been in situations where our visual observer was essentially on “helicopter duty” because of unreliable ATC at a nearby helipad.) In addition to the advertising plane, there were a handful of helicopters buzzing around the area. When we called the operators, we received responses similar to those from the advertising crew. Even with everyone’s word and several confirmations that they were flying well above our 400-foot ceiling, it was nerve racking any time another aircraft was thrown into the equation.
Tip: Know your flight planning software so you are ready and able to handle situations as they arise. For example, if you have a “hold” command, you should be familiar with how your drone will respond when you activate it, should you need to yield to another aircraft. Knowing how your software works may sound like a no-brainer that does not need mentioning, but I would guess it is quite common for people to become complacent once they master their most frequently used operations. At a minimum, run through a flight simulator in the office to test commands. Even though you will not see how the drone performs in these various situations, it is important to know what to expect of your software.
The Inevitable Time Crunch
Everyone is tied to a timeline. It does not matter what your job is; we are all crunched for time. However, UAV work is unique in the sense that unfinished tasks cannot be crammed into the time outside of normal business hours. And for about half the year — goodbye, Daylight Saving Time! — acceptable flying hours are significantly reduced. To minimize shadows in aerial imagery, it is best to fly as close to solar noon as possible. When you roll together dwindling daylight, unforeseen obstacles, and a trip that’s bookended by an airline schedule, you have yourself a real challenge!
Tip: Don’t shortchange yourself with time when planning trips to fly a site, especially when you have to catch a plane.
Safe Takeoff and Landing Locations
The most limiting factor of fixed-wing UAVs, as opposed to multi-rotor aircraft, is the inability to perform vertical takeoffs and landings. This adds an extra level of intricacy and planning to jobs flown with fixed-wing units. Google Earth and Maps are invaluable for mission planning prior to arriving on-site, but if the imagery is not current, you may be in for some surprises when you hit the ground. One way we have alleviated some of the stress associated with this, especially for sites with limited open space, is by setting up a web map in ArcGIS Online and marking locations we could potentially fly from. When we get to the site, we pull up the map in Collector and assess each one in person.
Tip: Scope out multiple locations before settling on where to fly from. Make sure you will be able to maintain VLOS from wherever you choose!
Charging all of the equipment needed for UAV mapping when you are out in the field can be one of the most challenging aspects of the work. It is usually impossible to complete large missions without having to recharge, and even if you are rich in batteries, the ground station will need extra juice at some point. This is not a major concern if you are driving to a job because you can bring a power station with you and plug in at any point. If you are flying to a site, however, you will need an alternate plan. Power converters that pull from the car are useful, but be aware that the wattage may be too low to support what needs charging.
We all run into equipment issues at one point or another, and while some things are inevitable, a majority of problems can be prevented with pre-flight checks. On the hardware side, it is a requirement to assess the drone’s components to ensure nothing is worn or damaged before launch. This, of course, will not prevent broken propellers or wings in the event of a rough landing. As far as software goes, running a flight simulator before getting out in the field should alert you to anything that needs to be resolved, such as too many waypoints in a mission. Working through issues before you get to a site will save a lot of time and stress.
Tip: Be prepared with spare partsfor your drone (props, rubber bands, wings, wing clips, etc.). And remember to bring any tools you may need for repairs!
One thing our UAV team is especially proud of is the level of accuracy we are able to attain. Ground Control Points (GCPs) are a key component that I believe are frequently overlooked when people imagine flying drones. When using UAVs for mapping, as opposed to snapping free-standing beauty shots, they are often required. GCPs are targets (usually white or a combination of highly contrasting colors) that are placed throughout a site prior to flying to help improve the absolute accuracy of the products. When setting targets out, it is important that they are well distributed and easy to distinguish from the surfaces they are on (picture a white target on fresh, dark asphalt). They should be put in places where they will not be obstructed or moved during the flight. Depending on the site, this can be difficult and physically demanding.
Tip: Avoid busy parking lots when putting out targets. Otherwise, someone will probably park exactly where you set one down.
While there are certainly days where everything works out in our favor, we intentionally approach each job with the mindset that the stakes are as high as they could possibly be. Any other thought process can lead to undesirable results. All of that may seem rather doom and gloom, and it does not mean UAV work is no fun at all, but it is not something to take lightly. And that is exactly why we are here: to take the pressure off of organizations that are not already invested in this line of work, but need the data we can produce to support their operations. If you need a site flown, head over to www.flythis.net to request a quote!