What You Need to Know to Become a (Safe) Drone Pilot
Drones have become immensely popular. Your kids might have received a toy one as a gift. You might have seen one taking epic pictures and videos while visiting a notable landmark or tourist spot. You might even be involved it the quickly developing industry of commercial or even military drones. While many people in the developed world have probably been exposed to a drone somehow or another, a small subset actually develop an itch to become a drone pilot themselves. OK, let's be honest, probably the majority of people who actually see a DJI Mavic drone say to themselves "I want one".
Being an owner of multiple drones, and a Transport Canada licenses drone pilot, people often ask me "How much does it cost?", "How can I buy one?", or "How can I become a drone pilot?".
In this blog entry, I'll attempt to demystify the burgeoning world of drones, and offer a good general perspective on what it takes to safety operate personal drones, and even my thoughts on what society and governments need to watch out for during the rapid development of commercial drones.
The predecessors: model aircraft
In the past, "model aircraft" were the only type of heavier than air aircraft that were flown without a pilot or passengers onboard. Many people got into this hobby, including myself. However, it was a relatively expensive and time-consuming hobby. The remote control (transmitter) and the model aircraft itself (which included the engine, receiver, servos, and moving control surfaces) cost hundreds of dollars, and required a fair bit of commitment to build and operate. Until recently, most of these model aircraft operated on expensive hobby fuel, and they could only be safely operated in non-inhabited areas, usually dedicated airstrips or fields. If you lived in urban areas, you would need to drive out to rural fields to practice your hobby, and often you needed to become a member of dedicated model clubs (which usually own a model aircraft airstrip somewhere closer to town) or associations. Also, model aircraft were not always the most reliable aircraft, and the engine/fuel systems and control systems required constant maintenance and upkeep. Furthermore, when you had multiple model aircraft operating at the same field or airstrip, specific procedures were required to ensure others did not interfere (or inadvertently transmit on) the radio frequency you were using to control your model aircraft. It was complicated... but it was very fun! Hobbyists often put on model aircraft airshows, which whole families would attend.
The governments did not need to regulate this hobby that much. It was mostly self-regulated, with practitioners using common sense to avoid flying their model aircraft directly over crowds or in dense urban environments (last thing we wanted was to get sued because our model aircraft crashed into someone's house).
Here's a picture of my Thunder Tiger 40 trainer:
What are drones?
What are commonly or informally known as "drones" refer to any aircraft which are piloted remotely and which do not have humans onboard. Technically speaking, that includes model aircraft.
Note that in the early 1990s, they were then popularly called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Nowadays, professionals in the field and most of the regulatory authorities refer to them as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPA/RPAS), a subset of the broader term Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UA/UAS) favored by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). There is a difference between RPA/RPAS and UA/UAS, but it's a subtle one: RPA/RPAS are controlled in real-time by a pilot, whereas UA/UAS can fly also autonomously.
The evolution of drones...
Prior to 2010, there was mostly 2 types of drones in operation: civilian model aircraft, or military UAS. While military UAS (like the famous "Predator") were quite technologically advanced by then, civilian drones were relatively basic; onboard cameras had just started to be introduced and were not quite that popular yes.
The popularity of drones skyrocketted (sic) between 2010 and 2020 as small drones with onboard cameras become much more accessible/affordable for the public at large due to technological advancement in general; I refer to these as "personal drones". DJI was the company that gained the most market share in this area...
Also, toy drones which were only popular with quite dedicated hobbyists before, became much more inexpensive and that made them a lot more accessible to the general public. In fact, I've bought small counter-rotating rotor helicopter style micro-drones for less than $20 and given them as gifts to lots of young kids in my family. They love 'em!
Initially, most smaller civilian RPAS were operated within visual-line-of-sight (VLOS), usually in airspace where they did not have to worry about other aircraft or RPAS. Things changed when more and more people started operating personal drones in lots of places where drones were not operated before: over crowds during concerts or festivals, in crowded places, in downtown areas, near airports. Furthermore, in specific tourist hotspots and landmarks, it become more commonplace to see not just one but many drones operating. And drone "incidents" became commonplace; a drone running into someones house window, or crashing into a crowd, or ruining the peaceful moment when you're enjoying the scenery at the top of a mountain following a long hike.
Furthermore, the advancement of small RPAS technology (like gyrostabalized onboard cameras, better lift to weight ratios) allowed pilots to operate those drones at longer ranges and higher altitudes, usually at the fringe and even beyond VLOS. This came with its own set of problems and challenges. Drones went out of the range of their operators, and sometimes got lost. It became harder to locate the drone's operator, especially when they trespassed into other people's private property. Drones started flying at higher and higher, closer to manned aircraft.
Lastly, many private companies saw value in developing commercial RPAS/UAS for various commercial purposes: drones for package delivery (think Amazon drone delivery service!), Search and Rescue drones, drones that facilitate security surveillance of a vast private property, drones that perform geo-mapping tasks, etc. One such company, Zipline, actually created awesome electric plane-like drones to quickly deliver medicine to remote hospitals and clinics in Rwanda!
That's when governments started getting involved.
Many governments, lead by the USA's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Canada's Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA), and the European Union's European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), quickly realized that regulations needed to be put in place to ensure drones are operated safely within civilian areas and airspace. The model aircraft community was worried this would impact them as well, and parents wanted to ensure that children playing with their mini toy drones did not have to worry about getting fined 😁, so lots of work was put into creating common-sense regulations with clear applicability statements.
Those regulations were put in place between 2016 to 2020 in various jurisdictions in the world, and they were meant to cover two aspects of drones:
regulating the operation of civilian Small RPA/RPAS (or sRPA/sRPAS, or sUA/sUAS),
regulating the commercial RPA/RPAS and UA/UAS industry.
Item 1. would cover civilian operation of most drones (DJI Phantom and Mavic, or Parrot drones, that had become super popular by then).
Item 2. would cover things like Amazon drone delivery service.
Regulations needed to be clear in terms of applicability for the reasons explained above. In most jurisdictions, most of the regulations target Small RPA/RPAS which are defined as any RPA/RPAS weighing at least 250 grams, and usually weighing below a specific weight as well (usually 25 kg), above which they were not considered as Small RPA/RPAS anymore and additional regulations and requirements apply. See table below for how Small RPA/RPAS are defined in Canada and the USA (in the EU, RPA/RPAS weight is less of a factor in applicable regulations).
Here's a table with an overview of the main regulations for some jurisdictions, allowing you to compare the similarities and differences between applicability and the main scope of the regulations (this table doesn't cover all the rules in all jurisdictions, so it's your responsibility to check your local rules and abide by them):
How to operate a Small RPA/RPAS safety
Alright, let's get into the meat of it. You're REALLY interested in operating a drone, like one the following popular Small RPA/RPAS models:
DJI Mavic (many variants, like the Mavic Air, Mavic Pro, etc... each with multiple iterations at this point), one of the most popular models out there
Protocol has many models of beginner racing drones
That chinese-made drone that Amazon keeps highlighting to you when you're checking out (which I don't recommend, but to each their own)
Here are the steps any safe pilot starts off with:
Step 1: read all the material you can about drones and regulations, to help you pick the drone that's right for you, and understand the requirements for safely operating your drone. You're reading this blog post, so that's a good start, but don't stop there. Make sure to read the regulations and browse the website the regulatory authorities have set up:
Canada's Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA): https://tc.canada.ca/en/aviation/drone-safety/flying-your-drone-safely-legally
USA's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): https://www.faa.gov/uas/
European Unions European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA): https://www.easa.europa.eu/the-agency/faqs/drones-uas
Step 2: buy your drone. I will make separate blog posts to help you decide. You can start with the next step while you're waiting for your drone to arrive.
Step 3: obtain your pilot certificate. The one you need depends on your jurisdiction. There are also age restrictions. Refer to the table above.
Taking my example, in Canada you need at least a pilot certificate — small remotely piloted aircraft (VLOS) — basic operations as a minimum to operate a small RPAS, and even a pilot certificate — small remotely piloted aircraft (VLOS) — advanced operations if you want to fly your small RPAS:
In Canada, you can obtain the pilot certificate — small remotely piloted aircraft (VLOS) — basic operations if you're at least 14 years old and after completing a relatively difficult online exam. My aeronautical knowledge is considered quite extensive, and let's just say I had to study hard to pass this one! You can also obtain a pilot certificate — small remotely piloted aircraft (VLOS) — advanced operations if you're at least 16 years old and after passing an even more difficult online exam, and conducting a flight review with a flight reviewer.
In the USA, a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating is necessary to operate a small UAS under Part 107. Alternatively, the operator should be under the direct supervision of a person who holds such a certificate. If you're at least 16 years old, you can obtain a part 107 remote pilot certificate by passing an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center;. If you're an existing Part 61 pilot certificate holder and have completed a flight review in the previous 24 months, your can get one my easily by taking a small UAS online training course provided by the FAA. BTW, Canadians that want to fly their small UAS in the USA must obtain a part 107 remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating, at least for the time being until the Canada-USA Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement is expanded to allow mutual recognition of eachothers' drone pilot certificates.
Step 4: register your drone. Refer to the table above for registration requirements depending on your jurisdiction. In Canada and the USA, small RPAS and small UAS must be registered. In Europe, you might not only need to register your drone, but also equip it with a transponder!
Step 5: have fun flying your drone, and respect the rules. This is the most important step 😎. Refer to the table above for a summary of the flight and operating rules (second reminder: this table doesn't cover all the rules in all jurisdictions, so it's your responsibility to check your local rules and abide by them). For example, in the USA, you are not allowed to fly your drone at light, whereas in Canada you may fly your drone at night if it's equipped with appropriate anti-collision lighting.
Here's a quick summary of flight rules that will keep you out of trouble (this list doesn't cover all the rules in all jurisdictions, so it's your responsibility to check your local rules and abide by them):
Hope this helps you get started! If this blog post helps you out, don't hesitate to contact me and let me know...
Here's a nice infographic published by TCCA that summarizes most of Canada's small drone rules:
Here's one that EASA published on operating a class 0 drone with a camera (they have one for each class):
Here's another one that EASA published on operating a drone for fun:
Here's one from the FAA on how to mark your drone after registering it:
The advent of "miCro" drones
I mentionned that the regulations above usually apply to Small RPA/RPAS or Small UA/UAS, which by definition are those weighing at least 250 grams (0.55 pounds).
Seeing the "market opportunity" for casual drone pilots that just want a more fancy way of taking a selfie or getting that epic aerial footage when they're performing extreme sports or crazy stunts, popular civilian drone makers like DJI developed what people casually and informally now refer to as "Micro-drones" or Micro RPA/RPAS or Micro UA/UAS, which are drones weighing 249 grams and below. The mRPA/mRPAS and mUA/mUAS acronyms are also becoming more prevalent to refer to these types of drones.
Micro-drones are drones weighing less than 250 g. The weight of the remote control is not factored in to the weight calculation, but the weight of anything attached or carried, such as optional cameras or safety cages or lens filters, will be considered part of the weight. The DJI Mavic Mini, which I own, is probably the most popular micro-drone, and it weighs 249 grams (note that that's without the protective safety cage that comes with it if you buy the "fly more" combo", or any lens filters that you may install on the camera,s o beware when operating it with the cage or lens filters since it might be considered a sRPA/sRPAS and not an mRPA/mRPAS). It can fly 30 minutes on one battery (my "fly more" combo came with 3 intelligent flight batteries), and it's capable of shooting awesome stabilized 4K video. Since buying it in the summer of 2020, DJI has released the Mavic Mini 2, which has improved performance and an even more awesome camera!
Micro-drones are designed to allow civilian drone owners to operate drones without needing to get a pilot certificate or to register their drones, both of which the new regulations now require for sRPA/sRPAS and above. simply said, pilots of micro-drones are not bound by the same requirements as other drones. While this means that most of the new regulations won't apply to micro-drone pilots (so they usually won’t need to register their drone or get a drone pilot certificate to fly them), it's important to note that some regulations do apply to micro-drones depending on the jurisdiction where you operate them (for example, in Canada, you must not operate any drone in a reckless or negligent manner as to endanger or be likely to endanger aviation safety or the safety of anyone). More on that below, and in the table above. Therefore, and a common-sense approach is nonetheless required to ensure pilots operate their micro-drone safely while respecting all other laws (like people's right to privacy).
While there are no prescriptive elements of the regulations, there is an expectation that the pilot of a micro-drone use good judgment, identify potential hazards, and take all necessary steps to avoid any risks associated with flying your drone.
For example, TCCA's website recommends that, as a good practice, micro-drone pilots should always: