Danny The Drone Dude
Throughout childhood and into college, I pictured the adult version of myself in a whole host of careers. The ideas ranged from the predictable (doctor) and practical (electrician) to the sensible (electrical engineer) and fantastical (wildlife photographer).
One future that I never could have imagined, or that any aptitude test could have predicted, was becoming a commercial drone pilot. Yet here I am today, living that dream in my spare time while working for the federal agency that taught me how to do it safely.
The genesis of droning dreams
I joined the Federal Aviation Administration as a writer-editor in December 2012, just as the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system became a priority. Congress had addressed the issue earlier that year in a series of mandates, and the FAA published a comprehensive plan and integration roadmap in November 2013.
Back then, I had only a passing knowledge of drones of the military variety, like the Predator and Reaper. But as I learned about smaller unmanned aircraft systems, I started picturing myself at the remote controls. I could experience the thrill of flight without being in the air myself, a prospect that rarely appeals to me.
Periodic exposure to UAS-related issues as a writer and editor heightened my interest. I reported on the first “UAS Day” at the Air Traffic Control Association, edited some content for the “Know Before You Fly” educational campaign, interviewed an FAA lawyer about the legal landscape surrounding drones, and wrote about the Pathfinder research program.
I talked about drones at home often enough that my wife and children heard the not-so-subtle message. They bought me one for my birthday. That’s when this 1980s child of one-joystick Atari games realized I wasn’t technologically adept enough to operate modern electronic toys.
I bounced that drone off every wall and piece of furniture in our house, testing the limits of the flexible plastic construction and propeller guards. Our teenage son, Anthony, was a natural at the controls — but when I let him fly the drone outside, he promptly rebelled against my orders to stay low and away from trees. He snagged the drone on a limb 25 feet in the air.
The whole family, and probably some amused neighbors, watched as an irritated and frantic father tried mightily to rescue his new toy. I tied a small rock to a long stretch of string and repeatedly heaved it into the air until it finally sailed over the limb. A few firm, downward yanks of the string freed the drone but not the rock. It dangled 15 feet above the ground for months, prompting the occasional curious question from visitors to our house.
Put to the UAS test
After that experience, I didn’t think much about being a drone pilot until the Department of Transportation and the FAA finalized the small UAS rule, also known as Part 107 for the relevant section of federal aviation regulations. That step toward integrating drones into the NAS made it easier and more cost efficient for freelance operators like me to pursue side hustles. A few weeks after the FAA implemented Part 107, I bought a DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone to pursue my goal of becoming an aerial photographer.
The drone’s hovering capability and programmable flight features were a huge upgrade, but the price tag and my tendency to crash made me anxious about flying it. We also live inside the Special Flight Rules area around Washington, D.C., where drone flights are restricted.
I kept the Phantom in its box until our next trip to my home state of West Virginia, and even there I let Anthony fly it a few times before I took the controls. The son taught the father for a change — and I was not a good student. I was a registered drone owner for three months before I felt comfortable enough flying without teenage supervision.
I was also just a hobbyist in the FAA’s eyes. I had to become a “remote pilot” in order to make money with my drone, and that meant passing an Airman Knowledge Test. A trial run through the sample questions with Anthony convinced me that I remained an aviation novice despite four years as a writer and editor at the FAA. And a deep dive into the FAA’s study guide for drone pilots awakened me to the reality of the challenge ahead.
A friend of mine who had passed the test pointed me toward a series of online video tutorials. I signed up for that program, studied during my Christmas vacation and scored 90 percent, well above the 70 percent minimum. My inauguration day as a remote pilot was Jan. 20, 2017. I also returned to work more adept in aviation lingo for my interviews with subject matter experts.
The next droning hurdle was finding a place closer to home to gain flight experience. Getting my remote pilot certificate limited my options in a sense. As a hobbyist, I just had to notify the local tower of the times and locations of my flights. As a remote pilot, I couldn’t fly near our home without an airspace authorization.
But the thought of applying for a regulatory break and being rebuffed by FAA colleagues intimidated me. I decided to test the process another way first — by applying for an operational waiver to fly my drone at night.
I thought that might be a lower hurdle to clear because the agency had approved nearly 350 such waivers by the time I became a pilot. I was wrong. Studying the FAA materials and third-party guides for requesting waivers helped me draft a request that at least wasn’t rejected outright, but the Flight Standards Service wanted to ensure that I knew how to fly safely at night.
The waiver team twice emailed me with questions about the lighting equipment I would use and the training my team would undergo related to visual illusions. A little more than two months after I submitted the request, I received a waiver to fly at night in uncontrolled airspace for up to four years.
Time to fly — in West Virginia and Virginia
By that time, the FAA had released facility maps for controlled airspace near more than 200 airports. This was the first step toward implementing the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, an automated system for approving UAS airspace requests in real time. I initially decided to take that easier path to airspace access, waiting for LAANC to be deployed rather than applying for any local airspace authorizations.
In the meantime, I focused on getting flight experience. Anthony and I visited a regional park
outside the D.C. area’s flight restrictions; I took a road trip with my photographer wife to points even farther west in Virginia; and I made multiple trips to West Virginia to capture aerial shots of church buildings, courthouses, other interesting landmarks and small towns.
I also arranged a trip to the FAA’s Command Center to capture stock imagery for future FocusFAA stories. That flight was technically my first as a commercial pilot, a real treat. How many drone pilots get to say they flew for the FAA? And as a bonus, our son, my flight instructor months earlier, served as visual observer. The air traffic manager gave him a tour of the facility.
I stumbled into my next commercial job, the first for my new company, Airscape Photography. On my way back from a drone journey to West Virginia last summer, I stopped at one of our favorite spots, the Virginia Farm Market in Winchester. The market features a red building with a giant apple on top. I thought that might look cool from above, so I asked the manager on duty if I could fly on the property in exchange for a few sample photos.
He agreed – and then asked my rate for aerial photography. Caught off guard, I quoted my wife’s standard rate for portrait photography. Three months later, I was back at the market snapping aerial photos of the annual pumpkin patch.
Virginia Farm Market is located in uncontrolled airspace, but that unexpected job was the nudge I needed to apply for an airspace authorization. I spent a weekend in December refreshing my memory about the process and submitted a request for a six-month authorization to fly near Manassas Regional Airport.
The FAA’s goal is to approve such requests within 90 days, and that’s exactly how long it took to get mine. Now all I have to do to fly my drone near home is notify Manassas Tower and the National Capital Region Coordination Center. I did that so often during a five-weekend stretch this past spring that at least one controller in the tower remembered me whenever I called.
Drone adventures to come
When I started this aerial journey, I thought it could be a high-tech way to bond with my son. These days he is far more interested in parkour than drones, but that’s OK. I like being at the controls, and he gets bored serving as my visual observer. My wife and two daughters are happy to play that role in his stead when the urge to go droning hits me.
I’ve learned a few embarrassing lessons along the way. Here’s one protip: If you crash into a fence and the motors keep whirring, don’t grab the drone by the landing leg in haste to free it. The propellers will slash and burn the skin right off your arm.
I fly mostly to photograph local spots of interest, but as a homeschooling parent, one day I’d like to offer drone classes to local homeschoolers. I built that plan into my airspace request. The next drone service I’d like to offer is mapping. I also have a crazy idea about painting with drones. And because I love to write about drones as much as I love to fly, I created Drone Book, a directory of drone pilots and a forum where I can write about them.
I’m eagerly awaiting the next phase of UAS integration – the nationwide deployment of LAANC. It’s scheduled for an August release in our area, and you can bet I’ll be a regular user.
This story, which originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website, was reprinted with permission. (Top photo by Cedar Box Photography)