Drones: A pilot’s perspective


A little more forward throttle, a bit more yaw to the left. Perfect. Click.

You might assume that I’m flying an airplane and taking a picture from one, but I’m not. I’m piloting a Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) — also commonly known as an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) — and I just took a picture of San Pedro Springs Park, the second oldest city park in the nation. The picture will help San Antonio residents experience their city parks from a whole new perspective.

San Pedro Springs Park

San Pedro Springs Park

Known to the public simply as a “drone,” my DJI Inspire 1 is an extremely capable aerial photography platform featuring a 12-megapixel camera and 4K video camera — all stabilized on a 3-axis gimbal. It is truly a camera sitting on a “tripod in the sky.”

Justin's DJI Inspire 1

Justin’s DJI Inspire 1

I’ve been serious about photography since 1999, when I started my part-time career as a professional photographer. Like many photographers, I also have a day job that pays the mortgage, working as a research analyst at USAA.

In 2001 I realized a childhood dream when I earned my private pilot certificate. A few years later I got an instrument rating, which cleaned up my flying skills and let me experience the unique joy of working hard on an instrument approach, popping out of a low ceiling and being rewarded with a runway in sight.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the concept of a “flying camera” was literally a match made in heaven for me. Here was this flying machine that appealed to my passion for the blue yonder and this camera, aloft, that let me view my world from a completely new perspective.

On the scenic Guadalupe River

On the scenic Guadalupe River

So how does this private pilot feel about RPAs? I think there is no denying that they are part of our future.

The positive benefits are many, including the very real benefit of saving lives. Just recently an Inspire 1, like mine, was used to fly a rope across a raging river to a couple that was stranded near their home. Rescuers had tried to get the rope across by boat without success.

RPAs are also helping rescuers in disaster areas get a birds-eye view to assist with damage assessment and to help pinpoint survivors. Drones can also replace some high risk inspections — like cell tower inspections — that in 2013 caused 13 lives to be lost.

The Raging San Antonio River after several days of heavy rain.

The Raging San Antonio River after several days of heavy rain.

Can RPAs be dangerous? Sure they can.

Flying an RPA near an airport or hovering a drone over a large crowd of people is a perfect example of a reckless operation. Manufacturers, like DJI, are trying to help by programming “no fly zones” into the flight controller of their RPAs that can even prevent their engines from starting if an operator is trying to fly at or near an airport.

While efforts like this can be very helpful, the best solution is to hold operators personally responsible for their actions.

Unfortunately, like most advances in technology, the appropriate publication of fair rules and regulations is flying behind the power curve. This is certainly true in the United States where the FAA has yet to publish a final set of rules designed to integrate RPAs into the national airspace, despite a mandate to do so by Congress by 2015.

Section 334 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 states, “not later than Dec. 31, 2015, the administrator shall develop and implement operational and certification requirements for the operation of public unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace system.”

The Star Garden at San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio, Texas.

The Star Garden at San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio, Texas.

Without clear guidance from the FAA, some state and local governments have decided to take matters into their own hands with suffocating legislation often built upon misinformation and hearsay.

Take for example, privacy concerns. The DJI Inspire 1 system that I fly has a 24mm wide-angle lens. Like most RPAs, wide-angle lenses are chosen because they provide the ability to capture dramatic and far-reaching aerial views.

Like most wide-angle lenses, however, they don’t do a very good job of magnifying the view of things down below. This means that to “spy on your neighbor” you’d need to effectively fly over their property and hover low enough that your neighbor would know about it — these RPAs are many things, but quiet isn’t one of them — and have a decent chance of knocking the bird down with a well-aimed shot from your favorite projectile.

Once again, this is a matter of holding reckless or inconsiderate operators accountable for their actions. If your neighbor is hovering their RPA low over your swimming pool and you knock it down with a basketball…well, they had it coming.

Canyon Lake, Texas, with RPA at 300 feet

Canyon Lake, Texas, with RPA at 300 feet

I’m encouraged though. Most of the time when I fly, a small crowd of onlookers forms. Most of the time, the crowd is fascinated. The adults often sound like kids — asking questions about how it works while looking closely at this marvel of technology that is hovering safely, with no control inputs, thanks to the miracle of GPS.

RPAs don’t have to be a menace. Quite the contrary, they can be a classroom in the sky — igniting an interest in a flying machine that demonstrates so efficiently concepts like lift, thrust, crabbing into the wind, and more.

Wyatt's Way Trail at Panther Springs Park

Wyatt’s Way Trail at Panther Springs Park

Before you make your final judgment on RPAs, go spend some time with an operator. Better yet, spend a little time flying one yourself, but be careful. You might just get hooked.

Flying an RPA is no substitute for flying my favorite Cessna 172, but it does scratch that flying itch. And that’s a good thing.


  1. Chris Hodges says

    I liked Richie Gomez, Stephen Kallis and Michael Dean’s comments on drones in the June 20th GAN. I agree with them. Drones need to be regulated more before introduction into the existing airspace system. The drones themselves should be certified and registered, just like any aviation product. They need FAA certified testing of their pilots to understand airspace requirements and the drones at the very least, need a transponder and encoding altimeter. At least a pilot with a Zaon or similar anti-collision system can pickup a drone and have knowledge of their presence. No collision avoidance system can protect a pilot, if drone pilots are not certified and trained by the FAA to operate their craft in a safe manner. Drones may be cool, but their rapid production and rushed introduction into the marketplace is irresponsible and dangerous. They say everything is safe for now, but to me, they are an accident waiting to happen. If all of the above is complied with, I think you would find very few people applying for a drone license. Just get in the REAL WORLD and go FLY AN AIRPLANE. It’s a lot more fun.

  2. says

    One small error in your report – the section of the 2012 FAA Act you cited, ‘Section 334’, relates only to “public” unmanned aircraft. “Public” is how the FAA is required to refer to government drones, principally those operated by the military.

    Section 334 is spelling out that the FAA must allow the DoD to begin to integrate their Reapers, Predators, etc. into the National Airspace System. That is occurring as we speak, but absolutely no one is reporting it. Odd.

    You want Section 332, “civil” unmanned aircraft systems.

    If you’re curious about the other thing, check out my blog:


  3. Eric Ziegler says

    All these comments are worthy, both positive and negative, concerning RPA’s IMHO, But what first crossed my mind had to do with viewing the photo of Wyatt’s Way Trail at Panther Springs Park. A cross-country Student Pilot, closely maneuvering within his IFR (I Follow Roads) envelope by following the Trail, could learn a lot about needle-and-ball flying :-)

  4. says

    On 29 may, according to a report on fox news, Shuttle America Flight 2708 reported climbing 200 feet to avoid an unmanned aircraft while on final approach to LaGuardia Airport at about 11 a.m. Adding strobes and increasing visibility is helpful, and making them a requirement will force owners of drones to pay more attention to the safety aspects of the gadgets, even if it’s primarily a monetary hit.

  5. Dan W says

    Folks trying to ignore or regulate UAS into nonexistence are like those who wish to uninvent firearms, or uninvent the atomic bomb. Guess what? The science has been worked out, the knowledge exists, it’s not going away. You can ban them entirely and the curious or rebellious will build them anyway.

    As the author states, clear rules are needed, and PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY needs to be the name of the game. You threaten or down an airplane because of careless use of your RPA? You go to court for criminal penalties… assault, reckless endangerment, manslaughter, even murder (where legally applicable). On top of that are civil penalties, and the awards to victims’ families for killing people with your stupidity will cripple your finances for LIFE. As it should be.

    There should also be stiff penalties for operations without being properly licensed.

    RPAs/UAS are not going away. The legal and regulatory infrastructure needs to catch up, and pilots of these vehicles will need to be held accountable just as a manned aircraft pilot is when he/she screws up.

    One caveat: For as much as I support responsible use of “drones”, I also believe landowners have every right to shoot them down for trespassing. If someone is being a dipstick with their flying machine, I will have zero sympathy when it gets knocked out of the sky.

  6. Richie Gomez says

    Well I been a pilot for more than 30 years. Before that and during my inicial years I was also into RC flying. Eventually I gave up RC flying completly. I rather expend the money I was expending on RC, flying real planes.
    I know drones are in our future, but some one telling me they can “scratch that flying itch” or a photographer telling me is “the way to show me the world”
    Nothing can compare to the feeling and the experience of actually being there and taking that picture yourself. I know there will be places where doing that in person can be very dangerous, therefore a drone would be a better choice. But replacing the actual flying with a drone is like comparing real sex with telephone sex. “The joy is in actually being there”

  7. Ed Watson says

    Hmmmm. Kinda reminds me of the ‘gun’ worry. Ban all guns and no one will get hurt cause it is the guns fault (not the hand holding it).

  8. says

    I’m sorry, but would somebody please explain to me how you can “scratch that flying itch” when you’re feet are planted firmly on the ground?

    A full motion flight simulator, okay. That gets pretty close to scratching the itch, for me. You’re shut up in a box with no reference to the outside world. They can be pretty convincing.

    But an RC flying machine? Nope. Not even with the camera on board. Just doesn’t do it.

    Nice try, though. But you can still sign me; “Anti-Drone”

    • Floatplanes says

      I hope you didn’t mean what I understood. What I understood was that since you don’t think they’ll fix your desire to fly that you think they’re a bad idea. I’m hoping what you meant by anti drone though is you won’t be spending money on one anytime soon because you think flying is so much better, if that’s the case I’m right on board with you there.

  9. says

    As long as drones have hih visibility (briht paint, anticollision strobes, and ideally transponder/encodig altimeter, they’d be okay in airspaces but otherwise, IMHO, they’re flight hazards.

    • says

      I’m with you, Stephan. Even if they are brightly painted. They’re so small that, if one were to pop up into your flight path, you wouldn’t see it until it you both hit the ground. I’m not even sure the strobes would help all that much.

      Nor would the transponder. Because you’d be looking for something you can’t visually see. Making look even harder. Distracting you from other things you should be paying attention too.

      And the real truth is, regardless of what regulations are put in place, sooner or later, some ignorant (or, more likely, thoughtless) boob is going to fly one these things through the pattern of a nearby airport. Resulting in a collision and serious injury… if not loss of life. It’s going to happen. It’s not a question of “if”, but only of “when”.

      • George says

        “Anti drones”? That sounds like anti guns, anti RC, etc. Like anything, it is the operator. For the past 50 years you could fly an RC plane into a flight path as well. Has it happened in the past with RC planes? Yes. Will it happen with drones? Yes. The opinion of this ATP

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