Toy or Tool: How Are We Representing What We Fly?

sUAS in the air

By Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS

A common way that I open presentations to manned pilots, airport personnel, and other decision makers is to point out that the Federal Aviation Administration has classified sUAS as “aircraft” as of 2012. While this sometimes brings out skepticism or laughs, it helps to point out that this classification allows the FAA to have control over the regulation, certification, and even protection of these aircraft.

In the same way, I have found it useful to bring this up in the classroom when instructing new sUAS pilots for their Remote Pilot Certificates. Since sUAS can be purchased in a variety of ways, (you can literally buy a Phantom while purchasing your new iPad at the Apple Store) they do not require the same level of planning, consideration, or even respect by the people operating them. As such, I find it helpful to dispel this misunderstanding from the start, particularly for people that are having to internalize some very critical elements of the aviation world in order to earn their RPCs.

For instance, instead of telling students that they are going to be “drone folks,” remind them of their part in a flight crew. RPICs, PMTCs, and VOs, all have critical roles to play. This not only helps remind students of some of the things they must remember for the test (such as roles, the influence of medications or alcohol, or even hazardous attitudes), but also gives students a basis to follow for safe operations in the field once they are certificated.

Similarly, we as instructors do well to mirror other elements that are not required for sUAS but have been developed the hard way in manned aviation. Just like establishing the Flight Crew Mentality, it is important to have your students consider the necessary tools that will help them complete their flight missions safely and successfully. A few questions to consider:

  • What level of flight planning do you require? I try to ensure everyone has figured out Airspace, Weather, Environment, and the Situation around their flying area. It helps take some of the guess work out on legality and separation as well as making students consider potential hazards from a Risk-Management standpoint, and act accordingly.
  • Do you have your students follow checklists for their sUAS? I once had an FAA examiner attending a training session to learn more about what we did in a training session. The examiner was skeptical of using a checklist for a Blade 180QX (a quad under 0.55 lbs. total weight). However, when we switched over to a DJI F450 and her vehicle was under threat of damage from students, the examiner was very thankful that we followed the checklist prior to starting up!
  • What do you recommend for aircraft currency? Under FAR Part 91, manned pilots must complete three takeoffs and landings (to include touch and go’s) within 90 days to maintain currency in their certificate. Yet there is no currency requirement for sUAS, currently. So, what do you suggest to students to maintain a safe, competent presence with the aircraft?

sUAS can enable major change in society, and we can have a great time in the process. At the end of the day, instructors need to ensure that we are taking lessons from the manned aircraft world and giving our students the necessary tools that will help them succeed as new sUAS pilots. By treating sUAS as aircraft instead of toys, we can give students the best possible start in this rapidly expanding form of aviation.

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Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS
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