Biggest Pain Points in Learning to Pilot a Drone

Last month, DI’s UI/UX Designer Hannah Nye and Software Engineer Zach Helms visited with UAV flight instructors to further their understanding of how pilot instruction is taught and discover what are the biggest difficulties the trainers face. Hannah shares her experiences and lessons learned below:

How does the military learn to use drones? For our nation’s military, every month drone instructors from InstantEye train uniformed men and women on the basics of flying their Mk2 Gen3 aircraft. Drones provide a safe, cost-efficient method of surveillance, payload delivery, and route recon. Though most trainees are quick to learn and implement their training, the learning process can prove difficult for some. After spending time with some instructors, including taking the 3 day training course ourselves, we have figured out the biggest challenges students face when learning to fly drones. The biggest challenges are:

1. Staying Environmentally Aware

Staying environmentally aware was an easy idea to grasp – hold your drone downwind when releasing, keep altitude above the tree line, and check all cameras for clearance before landing. In practice, it was a different story. Throughout the training, drones were held against the wind (putting co-pilots in danger of the drone clashing into their head), a drone was lost in the tree line and, on multiple occasions, all cameras were not checked for low level route clearance. Watching the environment, whether it be via the GCS (ground control system) or through normal sight, plays a key factor in concealment, returning the drone in one piece, and keeping everyone safe.

2. Generational Differences

The trainees we observed were young soldiers, no older than 35, and they took in information very quickly. These trainees have been exposed to current technologies and, through their generations different entertainment methods, such as video games, are left more adept at multi-tasking and using a controller while maintaining a visual on something else. InstantEye instructors pointed out that, on occasions, they receive trainees outside of this age group that do not have the same experiences with juggling technology and exercising instant decision making with equipment. This age gap can have a significant challenge on the speed of learning – instructors must take more time for individuals whose performance and learning curve is delayed.

3. “Look, Read, Push”

The motto for drone piloting is taught from the first day of training – “Look, Read, Push”. Meaning, Look down at the controller, Read the label of the button before pressing, and then Push the control. The simple mantra repeats itself throughout the training and is there for a reason. We observed haughty, eager, and confused soldiers were quick to push wrong buttons and make small mistakes. The most prevalent and costly mistake made was pressing the “Home” button before raising the drone to a safe altitude above any tree line – resulting in a lost or damaged drone as it attempts to take a straight line path back to the pilot. As trainees begin to build confidence over the days, that’s the moment when mis-selection mistakes occur as they make quick decisions while solely looking at the drone. Ensuring that trainees remember to do this before taking any action is a dense challenge. For many trainees, as soon as they become confident in their abilities, they begin to make quick decisions and often begin making controller selection mistakes.

What is the current solution to these challenges? What is the fix? Repetition! The repetitiveness of actions – completing a pre-flight checklist, taking off, flying at certain altitudes, and returning home – is taught until it becomes like clockwork. At the end of the third day of training, trainees have about 20 hours of flying drones under their belts and are certified to fly the drones.

However, is this the best solution? Does this fix or mask the larger problem – that pilots need easy, quick access to information. Operating a controller while trying to maintain a visual on the drone and processing critical information is too much multi-tasking for anyone, regardless of generational perceptions. Finding a way for a pilot to do some, or all, of those things at once will be crucial to increasing operational efficacy and minimizing error.

To read more about drones and the industries leading there adoption, check out this DI blog post.

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