We have been quite busy test flying our system and working with clients as we build our own UAS Operation up after obtaining our Part 107 Temporary Certificate from the Birmingham FSDO. However we have gained enough experience navigating the oft tricky regulations to post some of our insights on this blog.
Here is what we have found.
First of all, we highly recommend obtaining your Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate as soon as possible. The reasons are simple, number one being that you can accept compensation for Drone Operations, something that was not possible before unless you were an approved Section 333 Exemption holder.
Secondly, a close review of regulations clearly shows that Part 107 Remote Pilot Privileges are far greater than they are for non Certificate holders, even for operations not involving compensation or hire. Our own example should suffice, as you shall see later in this post.
In order to gain experience in UAS operations, we operated a simple house drone for several months in order to gain familiarity with control inputs and RC flying. We also utilized borrowed systems which were a bit more complex before graduating to our first real pro grade system, a DJi Phantom 3 Professional. Our goal was to master hand flying the Phantom 3 Pro prior to obtaining a Phantom 4, which we will do in immediate future.
Our experience operating the Phantom 3 Professional is worth recounting here, for both system and airspace knowledge. Though we have also set up and operated the Phantom 4 on behalf of a client and are a fan, the Phantom 3 Professional offers some features that are useful for a novice UAS Operator.
As a Pilot in Command of any aircraft, you are responsible for evaluating ALL AVAILABLE information prior to any flight. This includes system knowledge, as well as weather and airspace in your local area. Failure to do any of these things could result in a host of issues, from operator induced system failure to potential Airspace Violations and FAA Enforcement Action.
Because we were a Professional Flight Instructor for 8 years prior to making the jump to the UAS world, we took these responsibilities seriously. Our use of the Phantom 3 Professional directly followed Manufacturer’s instructions, and we did not even activate the system until obtaining DJI Care, which is basically an manufacturer’s insurance plan that will cover the cost of repairs in the event of damage up to the amount of system replacement cost. Because DJI allows purchase of DJI Care only 48 hours after system activation, we bought the plan and only then activated the system.
System activation is a process, as any UAS operator ought to know. You cannot simply turn on a system and expect to fly it, there are firmware updates to perform, and you must calibrate a system’s compass whenever you operate from a new location. Follow your manufacturer’s instructions and make sure you follow the proper steps. Failure to do so could result in your system crashing or flying away, never to be seen again. In either case you are risking your investment, so make sure you do what you must to make certain your system is flight worthy before taking it up.
Our initial test flights took place in a local waterfront park close to our home. Weather was VFR, and the park is located outside the Surface Area of a Class C regional Airport. With a relatively clear operating area, we were able to conduct a series of successful test flights. We began in Beginner mode, which basically restricts the System to a 30 meter bubble around the operator. After basic flight in Beginner mode, we switched to the system’s more advanced control modes.
This leads to a System’s biggest learning curve. After Beginner Mode, the Phantom E Professional has normal operating 3 modes, Positioning or P-mode which involves GPS positioning along with attitude sending, Attitude or A-Mode, which occurs when a loss of GPS signal occurs, and Function or F-Mode, which involves the autopilot functions of the System. Make sure you are in the proper mode you intend to operate in, which in the case of our Test Flights involves operating in P-Mode after our time in Beginner mode.
Operations in P-Mode make the Phantom 3 Professional a great system even for a novice UAS pilot like myself. The GPS augments the Attitude sensors in the System, allowing for a more stable hover. The system will account for wind and retain its position in a hover, countering wind effects and basically acting as a stationary eye in the sky. This is great for capturing stills or videos, and is one of the things that makes the system the top seller it is. This allows the Phantom 3 Pro to act as a stable camera platform, which is what it is designed to do. With such a system, you can see how the P3P isn’t just a simple RC Toy, instead it is an expensive camera that happens to fly.
A-mode is a bit trickier, as without GPS positioning, System operation is a bit more “interesting.” If you are operating in P-mode and you lose GPS signal, your tablet Device will flash a warning message in RED across the top of the screen and you will hear a female voice repeat a warning that you are in “Addi Mode, Addi Mode, Addi Mode.” Both these things are disconcerting, as any Aviator who has spent their time in manned aircraft can tell you, red screen warning messages are never a good thing. On top of that, the system’s control stability deteriorates, it is not as stable as in GPS mode, and without GPS positioning, your system can and will drift with the wind, a combination that can and will lead to some challenging moments.
The final mode is F-mode, which adds an autopilot function in conjunction with the GPS and Attitude Sensors. We are gaining experience in this mode and will post more as we do so, however our initial goal is to operate manually as much as possible at first, before moving on to automation. Our overall goal is to be able to sort out issues manually prior to operating automatically, as we do not want to use automation as a crutch, but rather as an augmentation that will allow us to operate our system at peak efficiency.
With basic control and test flying completed, we were able to gain experience with the system and thus far have only compliments for its simplicity. One of the big reasons DJI has the success it does is that the Go App which runs on your tablet is compatible with the Phantom 3, 4 and Inspire systems. One tablet, one App, multiple systems. The Go interface is also user friendly and allows you to perform your operations with a high level of confidence.
Getting back to airspace. After successfully operating in our Practice Field and in other locations whose airspace was verified via Aeronautical Charts we received quite a shock when discovering the Airmap App online. This app is a handy tool for seeing where one can and cannot operate a Drone, however it is not perfect. We played with its features and compared the airspace depictions with those of our Charts.
As any pilot knows, a Chart is the primary legal means of identifying airspace, along with FAA NOTAMS and TFRs, which can be obtained from the links in this paragraph, or via phoning 1800 WX Brief when calling for a Weather Brief. Therefore our airspace verification was confined to confirmation via Chart that we were not operating in any controlled airspace. Part 107 allows operations in all Class G uncontrolled Airspace up to 400 feet Above Ground Level, which is the default start point of Airspace from the ground if there isn’t another type of airspace depicted on a chart.
Imagine our shock when we saw that the Airmap App showed an airport within a 5 mile radius of our test flying area. Recreational operations within a 5 mile radius of an airport require calling the Airport Operator to inform them of Drone Operations within that radius. Unfortunately, the Airmap App gave the wrong number for that particular airport. The B4Ufly app didn’t work on our phone either, so our efforts at complying with the airspace rules reached an impasse.
This is where a careful re-reading of Part 107 Rules came in quite handy. The FAA’s online FAR Part 107 states the following.
§107.43 Operation in the vicinity of airports.
No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft in a manner that interferes with operations and traffic patterns at any airport, heliport, or seaplane base.
There it is in Black and White. Don’t fly a drone in any way that can interfere with manned aircraft operations. The Advisory Circular on Part 107 goes further in explaining things.