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Simulating Your Drone Flight

By Paul Cianciolo, FAA Safety Briefing Nov/Dec 2017

In this issue, we are focusing on flight simulation and training aids that can help pilots maintain proficiency and improve skills without the need to be in the air — the benefits of which are obvious. What may not be so obvious is that operators of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, can also benefit from flight simulation. While you may be tempted to take a quadcopter right out of the box and launch, there are many things to consider that may prevent you from losing your drone in a tree, violating an FAA regulation, or worse yet, creating a hazard to others flying around in the same airspace. Flight simulation can help drone pilots with preflight planning as well as with practical aspects of flying these highly capable machines.

Proper preflight planning is the cornerstone to safe flying. In addition to the obvious need to check the weather and ensure that your equipment is working properly, all pilots should do contingency planning in case things go wrong. A good practice is what manned pilots call “chair flying,” which means just what it sounds like. Sit in a chair and imagine scenarios — like a mechanical failure or lost link — and then run through the steps of what actions you would take. Hold the controller and practice what inputs you’ll make. Get familiar with the software and explore ways to pre-program commands or way-points in advance. Another good idea is to practice flying on a drone simulator. There are dozens available online for free that will let you simulate weather conditions, landscapes, and scenarios, like how your drone will respond in various situations or how to manipulate the camera. These are good skills to hone while your drone is still on the ground!

Another key component to safe flying is knowing where you are, and using a simulator beforehand can help you plan appropriately. The airspace can be busy and complex and the rules vary for different types of operations. For example, if you are a hobbyist operating under 14 CFR part 101, you’ll need to notify all airports within five miles of your flight. The FAA’s B4UFLY app, which is geared for hobbyists, is a great way to see which airports you’ll need to notify. You may be surprised how many airports there are out there — including helipads. The B4UFLY app will also show you other location-specific information, like temporary flight restrictions and national parks where UAS are not allowed to fly.

If you’re flying under 14 CFR part 107, the “five-mile from an airport” rule doesn’t apply to you; instead, you can fly in Class G airspace or get prior authorization from ATC to fly in controlled airspace. Using a more robust third-party app like AirMap or Kittyhawk or a software platform like DroneDeploy or Skyward will aid in simulating your drone flight before your takeoff. You’ll also want to plan your flight well in advance so that you have time to get an airspace authorization, if needed.

When it comes to operating any aircraft, there’s no such thing as too much preparation. Planning and simulating your drone flight before it leaves the ground will help you make informed decisions about when and where to fly and will keep the NAS safe and accessible to everyone.

Paul Cianciolo is an associate editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and a rated aircrew member and public affairs officer with Civil Air Patrol.