So You Want to Fly Drones?

Kike Calvo's FPV flight Student and future instructor Michael Ferguson, supervised by Unmanned Vehicle University Instructor Gene Payson, follow Kike Calvo's FPV flight using the DJI Phantom. First Person View (FPV) refers to when a camera is placed onboard the aircraft. The camera sends live video to the pilot, and the pilot flies the plane by looking at the live video while operating the remote control as if piloting from inside the aircraft. Photo ©

This post is the latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series,  which profiles interesting information, thoughts and research into using  drones, UAVs or remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography, that I learn learn about during my travels. 

After attending DARC, a Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference in New York, I decided to become an expert in reporting on stories and news related to this new technology. My interest is far away from military uses. My intellectual curiosity is geared towards the future of Unmanned Vehicles in the civilian world. Many of these potential applications are listed on Drone Entrepreneurship: 30 Businesses You Can Start.

In order to understand the conversations and dynamics between policy makers, concerned citizens and passionate RC hobbyists, I decided to join a Drone Pilot Training Certificate at the Unmanned Vehicle University (UVU). The university’s primary focus area is on Unmanned Air, Ground and Sea Systems education and training.

A broad spectrum of students are joining this Unmanned Vehicle University in Arizona.  Many see UAVs as the future of aviation and want to be part of the phenomenon. Others want a certification and training to start their own business. “I would say half of our students want to start their own business. The other half want to improve their education to move up or get a job in the UAV industry,” said Jerry LeMieux, Retired Colonel and President at Unmanned Vehicle University.

Photographer Kike Calvo preparing the DJI Phantom for a flight. Photo ©

My assigned instructor was Gene Payson, who has over 40 years of experience and thousands of hours operating remotely piloted, radio controlled and small UAVs. “In addition to ground school, I teach the mechanics of being a pilot in three modes: Line of Sight, First Person View and Internal Pilot,” said Payson.

The Certificate is divided in three phases. The initial stage starts at home. Students complete what they refer to as the UVU Small UAV Ground School. Online videos covering topics such as checklists, general characteristics, motors, propellers, electronic speed controls, wireless links, emergency procedures and others. This phase provided me with a solid introductory understanding of drones and its components.

Student Michael Ferguson and photographer Kike Calvo put together a fixed-wing X8 unmanned aerial plane. Photo ©

Once the students have the basic theoretical knowledge, a simulator is mailed to them, similar to the RC Tech 6 CH Flight Simulator Remote Control. The simulator consists of software and a controller that plugs into the computer´s USB port. After I installed the software, I was able to fly 47 different small UAVs from six different sites. This hands-on experience prepares the students for flight with several real small UAVs during a three day flight training class, available in different locations across the United States.

After completion of the home-based ground school and simulator training, it is time to advance to the final phase: three days of basic flight training. I flew to Florida to meet with my instructor Gene,  a UAV pilot for the Air Force Research Laboratory and a certified pilot on the Penguin B gasoline powered fixed-wing small UAV. During my time at the flight school, I learned basic skills to fly both fixed-wing and vertical takeoff (quadcopter and helicopter) small UAVs. Propulsion systems, both electric and gas.

Student Aaron Ait-Tonati about to launch a Hudsan fixed-wing plane. Photo ©

We started on day 1 with safety briefings, weather check and the importance of keeping a Pilot Log. This first day opened a whole new world for me. I was able to pilot, under supervision, different vehicles, from small toy minicopters (Badboy Quadcopter), a  DJI Phantom, and fixed-wing UAVs such as the Hubsan SpyHawk FPV RC Plane or the X8. Emphasis was given to Line of Sight (LOS) piloting.

Like everything in life, mastering the techniques to flying these vehicles requires time. I would say it takes lots of time. I had previously experimented with different RC toys and devices. But during my training, I became aware that each type of vehicle, not only has a different purpose, but that it also requires a different set of skills from the pilot´s side.

“The hardest to teach is what the student has most difficulty learning. Different students have different aptitudes,” said Payson.  “I find that LOS flight is generally the most difficult for pilots to become extremely proficient at. This takes hundreds of hours of training. Younger people who played video games at an early age have actually learned to fly LOS at the same time. They have built up hours of training at a young age without realizing it.”

Photographer Kike Calvo perfects his skills on FPV flying. Photo ©

On day two we focused on First Person View, that is, the ability to see what the drones sees in the air, as if you were sitting down in the cockpit. To achieve this, a combination of cameras, antennas, repeaters, goggles and monitors are used. I now understand why hobbyists get hooked. It is mesmerizing to be able to see yourself from the air, to explore unknown areas and to dream of the possibility of capturing beautiful images and videos. I learned how differently fixed-wing planes and copters behave in the air.

The last day we worked exclusively with DJI´s S800. We spent the day talking about autopilot piloting. Training and testing, simulating flights to conclude with the creation of my own flight mission from scratch. From designating the way-points, heights and type of turns to real life fly missions.

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DJI’s S800 in flight. Photo ©

Jerry LeMieux founded the Unmanned Vehicle University in 2012. “I have taught electrical, mechanical and aeronautical engineering at six different universities over 22 years. I have always wanted to start a school,” said Jerry LeMieux. “I saw commercialization of UAVs coming several years ago. I recognized the need for civil UAS education and training. I also recognized that the only way to get an education in UAVs was to join the military. Several years ago there was no way to learn as a civilian. Now we have a handful of schools that are teaching UAVs, however they are only teaching operations (pilots and sensor operators). I wanted our school to be different so I chose UAV engineering as a focus area for the school.”

“The FAA has published their strategy for commercial UAVs but has not set a timeline,” said Jerry LeMieux. “The first commercial UAV flight occurred in July 2013 with the Scaneagle UAV in Alaska. This is a milestone as it is the first time in history, UAVs have flown for profit in the USA. Congress has passed a law to direct the FAA to publish the regulations for small UAS (less than 55 lbs) by August 2014. The FAA has already announced they will have a draft by the end of 2013. So hopefully we can fly small UAS commercially in 2014.”

“Canada, UK, Australia and many other countries already have commercial UAV regulations. There are many successful UAV applications around the world,” explains LeMieux. “A company in Canada called ACCUAS does world class site surveys. It used to take two weeks. With a UAV it takes 2 days. A company in the UK called CYBERHAWK does oil rig inspections. They have contracts with all the major oil companies. Use of UAVs does not require a costly shut down. According to Boeing, the commercial UAV leasing market will be $10 Billion in 10 years.”

Fixed-Wing X8 Unmanned Aerial Plane. Photo ©

“The UAV Fundamentals course provides an eye-opening experience to anyone who wants to expand his knowledge in the wide field of UAV applications in the present and future environment,” said Dr Dimitrios Gkritzapis, Chief of Police in Athens. “For those inexperienced in the UAV technology, it will provide a fast-track to the status and potentials of this interesting and exiting field, whereas for those already experienced with the UAV technology, they will certainly discover new applications and new methodologies applied in operations worldwide.”

For all of you out there who maybe interested in the potential of aerial photography and other civilian uses, I would like to end by saying that your best strategy is to expand your knowledge and education. A small toy mini-copter is not very likely to hurt you or others, but it can still inflict some injuries. When you start going up in the scale of drones and copters, my suggestion is that you get as much information as possible. Becoming a good pilot is a question of practice. There is a learning curve that we all need to overcome. Don´t think you can do it simply because everyone is posting videos on youtube or because you are able to fly your friend´s minicopter.  Seek professional advise, and read. Read everything that comes your way regarding this new industry. And remember, it is essential to fly with a friend or a spotter, who will be able to help with the process, specially when you start using FPV.

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Learn More:

Drone Programs:

The Missouri Drone Journalism Program. Missouri School of Journalism. University of Missouri.

Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Drone Journalism Lab. College of Journalism and Mass Communications. University of Nebraska.

Popular minicopters and drones include:

Cool stuff for Drone and Unmanned Vehicle enthusiasts

ARDrone from Parrot

Phantom by DJI Innovations


WLtoys V929 Beetle 4-Axis Quadcopter Dexterous Mini UFO RTF

Walkera QR LadyBird V2 Mini Quadcopter W/ Devo 4 Radio, RTF

Hubsan SpyHawk FPV RC Plane & 3.5 inch LCD Monitor/Controller with video recording and auto-pilot system – Version 3

Badboy Quadcopter With Camera

The New Hubsan X4 H107L Improved Version

MaxSale Hubsan X4 H107C 2.4G 4CH RC Quadcopter With Camera Mode 2 RTF

Additional Readings: 

Drone / UAV Dictionary: Includes 300 Commercial UAV Applications

Introduction to Unmanned Systems: Air, Ground, Sea & Space

UAV Fundamentals Executive Course

How to Start an Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV) Business Course on DVD

Small UAV Construction

Getting Started with Hobby Quadcopters and Drones: Learn about, buy and fly these amazing aerial vehicles

Drone Entrepreneurship: 30 Businesses You Can Start

Drone Art: Baltimore

Military Robots and Drones: A Reference Handbook (Contemporary World Issues)

Kill Decision

The Media Source Presents Drones: Are They Watching You? Magazine

Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Rise of the Drones II: Examining the Legality of Unmanned Targeting: One Hundred Eleventh Congress, Second Session, April 28, 2010

Drone Pilot (Cool Careers)

2011 Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Encyclopedia: UAVs, Drones, Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Weapons and Surveillance – Roadmap, Flight Plan, Reliability Study, Systems News and Notes

Futaba 9C: The User’s Guide (Modeller’s World)

Fly by Wire Aircraft: Fighters, Drones, and Airliners

Introduction to Remote Sensing, Fifth Edition