Up Sonder

How many flight hours make an experienced drone pilot?

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Hi all, just trying to pick your brains a little bit.

What do you think is the average number of flight hours at which you would consider someone an experienced drone pilot? How many flight hours would make someone an expert?

@Alan Perlman Since you deal with so many pilots, would love to get what you think too!

 

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You are opening a can of worms here, the discussion will be hot and heavy. :D 

Well, the words "experienced" and "expert" are subjective,  with wide definitions & opinions. As a court qualified "expert" in accident reconstruction in my previous police life, the legal standard was one of training, experience, qualifications, research, teaching experience and others, which the trier of facts (the judge) evaluated and ruled on. Once the judge admitted one as an expert you were permitted to offer opinions in court within your subject matter. 

But you didn't ask for a lot of evasive answers; IMHO, the field of UAVs is still too new to have too many "experts." But you asked so I'd define a "consumer UAV expert"  as a minimum of 300 hrs. in different platforms) fixed wing, quads, hexa, octo  and different manufacturers. Plus teaching experience in the field, a few articles in professional publications would complement the qualifications. That would be a person I'd call an expert. 

Then there are the folks who fly the big boys (Global Hawk, Ravens, Predator, Hunter, Shadow, etc.) in the military and civilian world. Certainly lots of experts there.

I propose to you that anyone with over 100 hours in different consumer-level UAVs may be considered "experienced."  I hold both FAA commercial pilot/remote pilot certificates, with 300 hrs. in the cockpit and just coming up on  100 hrs. in quads and fixed wing UAVs and consider myself in between noobie and experienced. Not comfortable calling myself experienced, maybe advanced amateur. 9_9

ps- I try to avoid the word "drone" unless I'm in mixed company. :$

Edited by Uaviator53

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@Uaviator53 Thanks for the reply! You are right these terms are completely subjective which is why I think it is valuable to ask as many people as I can.

So far from talking with pilots and commercial UAV :D industry people it seems most people are setting on between 50-100 hours to be called "experienced".

Also I've noticed that a lot of job posting for pilots of the big boys (Predator, etc) want at least 300-500 flight hours.

Here is a question...do you think it would be a good idea for the FAA to make guidelines for the commercial drone industry on how many flight hours (or range of hours) is needed to be experienced?

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"Also I've noticed that a lot of job posting for pilots of the big boys (Predator, etc) want at least 300-500 flight hours."

I've also seen requirements for an FAA commercial pilot certificate w/ instrument rating, in addition to the RPC. 

"Here is a question...do you think it would be a good idea for the FAA to make guidelines for the commercial drone industry on how many flight hours (or range of hours) is needed to be experienced?"

No. The FAA does not regulate experience or hours. That is left up to the hiring agency, as it should be. Fifty hours may be fine for real estate photography operation but not enough for powerline inspections.

Another critical issues is this; there are "hours" and then there are "hours." 300 hours flying a Phantom at the city park cannot compare with 75 hours flying construction site, inspections, public safety, or powerlines. Very different experience levels.

If the feds start attempting to regulate experience they will get caught in a legal quagmire they do not want. It takes a minimum of 200 hrs. to get a commercial pilot certificate, but no company is going to hire a 200 hr. pilot to fly for hire. It is a matter of practicality and liability. I think civilian commercial UAV companies will reach a natural plateau on the subject of "experienced" with time, just like the folks you contacted who had a consensus of 50-100 hrs.

US Customs minimum qualifications:

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Ability to pass an intensive security check and polygraph test
  • Pass ongoing drug tests
  • Be under 40 years of age (may be waived for military veterans and other experienced professionals)
  • Possess a valid FAA Commercial Pilots license
  • Have at least 1,500 hours of flight time (May be reduced to 750 in some cases)
  • Have at least 250 hours as a Pilot-in-Command
  • Have 75 hours of night time flying experience
  • Have 100 hours of flight time in the last year
  • Possess a license in UAV Predator B piloting (Predator A may also be acceptable)

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Experience probably needs to be defined in context of a commercial application.  You could have 1000 hours flying a Phantom but still not be qualified to fly a power substation for a utility.  

I think the approach the FAA took for the requirements to become a commercial operator is correct.  There's no way to define the requirements based on hours.  How would a drone operator prove the numbers of hours flown or PIC time?  

How much experience someone has doing a particular thing, like inspecting power substations without the drone has more relevance than someone who claims to have a lot of hours flying a drone that wants to do aerial inspection. 

Does anyone actually fly a DJI?  There are no standards for practical experience so there's no way to judge experience.  I'd be willing to bet that a large percentage of drone pilots could not take off, fly under one obstacle, over another, around another 100 yards away and return to the launch point with a drone that only uses accelerometers, no GPS, no magnatometer, no barometer.  Fully manual flight.

 

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On 4/26/2017 at 9:32 PM, Av8Chuck said:

...I'd be willing to bet that a large percentage of drone pilots could not take off, fly under one obstacle, over another, around another 100 yards away and return to the launch point with a drone that only uses accelerometers, no GPS, no magnatometer, no barometer.  Fully manual flight.

 

I wouldn't be able to for sure. Would you? Would anyone?

But if that were the standard, what would the point be of developing all this tech to aid in successful, safe flights? I feel technology should be there to serve as a means to better something. Since technology in this instance should provide a safer work environment, it can't be withheld from the standard, whatever it ends up being.

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Sure, do it all the time.  

The reason this is important is not to prevent using technology to aid the pilot, but the ONLY rule the FAA has, kind of the prime directive, is that you maintain 100% control, 100% of the time.  The majority of drone accidents are caused by the failure or interference with GPS, the magnetometer or barometer.  

If you can't switch out of whatever assisted mode your in and fly manually when either of these systems fail, you're no longer in 100% control of the drone.   

For consumers DJI is the most feature rich but its also the unsafest.  We often fly in GPS denied environments, in high energized environments which can play havoc with your magnetometer and we can takeoff and land in the ocean which can mess with the barometer, we can do this because we can switch out of whichever mode is unreliable or into manual mode.  But you have to know how to fly to do that safely.  

Also, people might be putting their faith in technology in the wrong place.  Most of the time when you initialize and try to arm a Phantom on the hood of a car, it won't and you have to do a compass calibration.  So how good is that technology?

   

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18 hours ago, Steve Bennett said:

I wouldn't be able to for sure. Would you? Would anyone?

But if that were the standard, what would the point be of developing all this tech to aid in successful, safe flights? I feel technology should be there to serve as a means to better something. Since technology in this instance should provide a safer work environment, it can't be withheld from the standard, whatever it ends up being.

Not to beat a dead horse, but its Saturday and I'm bored...

Here's a video of an early drone that I built, I used a GAUI330X controller which has no advance flight modes, no position hold, altitude hold or GPS, it is only manual flight.  There's no gimbal either, they didn't exist yet so the GoPro is mounted directly to the frame.

That was a really fun drone to fly.

 

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I agree with the above comments about it being the quality of hours as opposed to quantity.  I got my Private Pilot's license over 30 years ago, so anything I fly I want to be proficient at.  More than half of my drone hours have been spent in manual mode doing co-ordinated turns, figure 8s, and when I'm lucky enough to find a local park that's empty, I use it as an aerial obstacle course.  I live in Chicago, and it seems everywhere I go there is interference from cell towers, power lines...you name it.  You need to be able to take over in manual mode at any time.

I realize that was long winded, and didn't really answer the question, and I honestly don't have an answer.  I consider myself a "competetent" pilot, but I guess the real judge of whether you're experienced or not is the person or company that hires you.

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Hey @Up Sonder! Love this question. This is something we grapple with frequently at AeroVista Drone Academy. How does one measure experience for a drone pilot? Especially with varying and complex mission profiles (Construction mapping vs. Thermography, ETC. ) This question is especially pertinent when we train pilots on the Public Safety side, because not only does a pilot have to be experienced, but they have to maintain proficiency! A 500hr pilot who hasn't flown in 6 months has plenty of experience, but over time skills get rusty. This is why the FAA requires 90 day currency for manned pilots to carry passengers, and biannual flight reviews to keep a pilot's certificate active.

So here's my opinion, which is entirely based upon my experience instructing drone pilots of all backgrounds from former airline pilots getting into the unmanned world, and those with zero aviation background staring totally green.  

First, let's define "experienced"

What I would consider an "experienced" drone pilot is one that I would trust flying under my authorizations, waivers and insurance without creating significant spikes in my blood pressure. This is someone who's had enough flight hours to see some emergencies, bad weather and complicated airspace. This is someone who's encountered adversity and demonstrated their ability to sort it and keep flying safely. 

They don't need to be Chuck Yeager, but they need to be independent, confident, and safe.

An "experienced" and "flight ready" drone pilot has logged between 100 and 150 total flight hours, with at least 3 hours in the preceding 90 days, and 10 hours "on type" (on the make and model they intend to fly)

Why so rigorous? With very few instructional standards, and the constant progression of automation technologies, the role of PIC becomes less and less about physically flying the Aircraft. This is a real double-edged sword for the student drone pilot.

  Usually, when someone learns a skill, they follow the following progression, which can be described by the following thoughts:

Unconscious Incompetence.  "PSSSH this is EASY! I'll master this overnight"  (Don't know what you don't know)

Conscious Incompetence.  "Woah, okay. I now know how much I don't know"

Conscious Competence. "I can do this, if i focus on it"

Unconscious Competence.  "I can do this without thinking about it"

This progression applies to almost anything. Learning to fly, learning to drive, even learning a musical instrument. The problem is, in order to progress, a learner must first be confronted with the fact that they don't know what they don't know. When I learned to fly an airplane, this became very apparent very fast. The problem with cheaper and more available automation, is it allows new pilots to become somewhat successful (IE, not break anything for a while) before they are confronted by their own lack of proficiency) When I was a kid, radio controlled helicopters had little to no automation. I bought one, thinking it would be easy to fly. It ended up looking like This and I was immediately confronted by just how little I knew. Necessity is the  impetus to learning. if you don't feel you NEED to know something, you WON'T learn it. 

Over time, a pilot builds confidence. If that confidence building in't peppered with minor emergencies and uncomfortable situations. That confidence turns to complacency and in aviation, Complacency Kills. 

If I where to ask you, "Which group of pilots are most likely to crash" you'd probably say, "Student Pilots, because they have the least experience!" but you'd be wrong. In fact, the AOPA's  Nall Report on aviation accidents, lists low time Private Pilots as the most likely to cause  accidents. nearly half the accidents reported where caused by Private Pilots. But why does that happen? They have certificates so shouldn't they know more, and therefore be safer than than the students? Here's the problem: They get cocky. Just like the 16-year-old kid with a brand new driver's license, they've been through all the training they've been out on the road and they think they know everything there is to know. Until they get confronted by their lack of proficiency. Or in my case when I was 16, my neighbors mailbox. 

So What does all this mean for drone pilots?

As helpful as automated modes are (secretly, I love flying the DJI birds in P-GPS) they can cause the really insidious problem of brushing a pilot's lack of skill under the rug. Essentially allowing them to build hours, without building experience. This building of hours in turn causes vastly increasing confidence causes pilots to feel comfortable cutting corners, skipping steps, and flying "on the edge"

Problem is, all that shiny new obstacle avoidance and automation only works well under perfect conditions. Unfortunately, the real world is filled with bad GPS reception, high winds and dark skies and often times those systems fail. As a result, with no substantive airmanship skills to fall back on, drone pilots crash. 

with little guidance from the FAA as to how to train pilots beyond 107, it's incumbent on us in the industry to set the expectations and training standards for tomorrow's pilots. While it's obviously not of the same risk profile as a manned aircraft, no serious industrial user can afford to have pilots ditching Phantoms after a magnetometer failure, or having CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain) losses on construction sites with tall cranes. It's simply not enough for a pilot to have just flown a certain number of hours. Its paramount that they can demonstrate proficiency and recency along with experience. 

We as an industry have the opportunity to be the safest sector of aviation. Let's do it!

Edited by BrendanS_AVI
Spelling and Grammar! :)
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