As accessible as drones are – I’ll bet you’ll see them buzzing all over the place during the summer holidays – they are sophisticated machines with innumerable uses. To legally enter the world of commercial drones, you’ll first need an RPL, or Remote Pilot Licence. I’m curious and always keen on a new challenge, so I decided to find out, first hand, what getting an RPL entails, and got in touch with RPAS Training Academy.
Aviation is changing, and the biggest technological progress in the industry is in the world of drones – Dubai’s autonomously piloted air taxis come from drones. If you plan on keeping current in aviation, you’d better get a handle on what’s happening with UAVs. We haven’t begun to realise their potential applications – they’re so much more than a means to a beautiful picture or the ultimate selfie.
Currently they’re regularly used for mine surveys, in the film industry, for real estate photography and agricultural work such as crop assessments, so it wasn’t surprising that my theory class included a farmer, another guy looking to offer crop spraying, and two people who had been sent by their mining company to get an RPL. But drones are also being used for stock counts in factories; for security and surveillance; accident investigations and disaster management; building, tower and power line inspections; and in some countries with less restrictive regulations, cargo and air-drops, such as dropping blood and other medical supplies in Rwanda.
Legally, an RPL isn’t enough. To offer drone services, you need a Remote Operators Certificate (ROC), but with an RPL you can fly for a company that does have an RPL. Still, needing an ROC comes as a surprise to many wannabee drone pilots during the first few theory lessons, and is a further frustration for those who have begun down the path of doing things legally. As mentioned in an article in the November edition of SA Flyer, the CAA plans to amend the regulations to be less obstructive to low risk operators.
Most training organisations offer full time theory courses which run for a week. This includes all the lectures and exams. It’s convenient, if you can take the time off work for a week or two, to get all the theory out the way quickly, but it’s not always practical. So, RPAS Training Academy also offer weekend courses which run over three concurrent weekends.
They’re based at Eagles Creek Aviation Estate in Centurion next to the N14, and they also run courses from BAC Helicopters at Greystone helipad in Durban. Theory training can be done anywhere, but finding a big piece of open land on which to do the practical training is a little tricky in Gauteng. RPAS Training Academy’s training field, about a five-minute drive north of Eagles Creek, is one of the more convenient drone flying training locations.
Because it’s a good idea to do the practical ‘skills test’ soon after flight training, it makes sense to get the theory aspect of the licence out the way first. Just keep in mind that you have only 90 days to pass the skills test after completing the theory exams. It depends on experience, but most people only need five to ten hours with an instructor until they are ready to test.
Ground school, or theory training, consists of seven exams covered over six days: Navigation, Meteorology, Human Factors, Air Law, Construction and Flight, Batteries and Radio Links, plus the Restricted Radio Licence. Anyone holding a pilot’s licence can cut that down to just four exams – Air Law, Construction and Flight, Batteries and Radio Links – taught and written over three days.
Coming from an aviation background certainly helps. Not only are there fewer exams to write and lessons to attend, but the information is often familiar. Even if you are learning new content, it is covered in a similar way to other pilot’s licences, and I found there to be far less to learn than even for a PPL. The CAA requires that you attend ground school, and although I have no doubt someone with past experience in aviation could easily pass the exams by self-studying, for those that are new to the industry, it ensures a degree of exposure to good airmanship practices. It’s a sensible requirement as an RPL is, after all, a commercial licence. And, even if you come from an aviation background, it is helpful to be able to ask questions and clear things up there and then in the class – and you make some friends along the way. Finally, RPAS Training Academy has a CAA approved exam facility, so you write the exams at Eagles Creek the day after the lessons on the relevant subjects, so everything is fresh in your head, and there isn’t any waiting to book a slot to write at the CAA offices in Midrand.
On the course I attended, only one person didn’t pass all exams first time, and even then, it was just one exam failed by the slimmest of margins – like all other CAA theory exams, the pass mark is 75%, and if you fail, you have to wait seven days before you can rewrite the exam.
With the theory out the way, it’s time to start the fun part of the licence – practical training. A couple of kilometres down the road from Eagles Creek, on a big private plot, 1 nm from the Ernie Els Golf Estate – a popular landmark in the Kyalami VFR corridor – is the Centurion Flying Field, from where RPAS Training Academy conducts its training. There are two short gravel runways, about 50 m long and perpendicular to each other, where you can land your fixed wing drone, and, for multi-rotor training, there are four cones spaced in a rectangle, over which all manoeuvres are flown.
I didn’t have much experience with drones, so seeing as they’re the most popular, and probably the easiest to fly, I was doing my multi-rotor licence – you can also do a fixed wing or helicopter RPL. For multi-rotor training, RPAS Training Academy has three AKS-Y6 drones. The name describes the machine. It has three booms joined to the central housing in the shape of a Y. At the end of each boom are two props, one above the other in a push/pull configuration. They weigh about 3.5 kg and are about 60 cm in diameter. They’re stable and can handle wind well – and the boom arrangement makes it easy to see in which direction your drone is facing – a big help when trying to orientate the drone so that you make the correct inputs. It’s trickier than I thought.
Lessons are booked for an hour at a time, but because battery life limits each flight to about ten minutes, you only get 20-30 minutes of flight time. Repeatedly changing batteries and logging their voltage, and filling out the autho-sheet and flight folio after every flight is a bit tiresome, but it’s the law, so we comply. It does, however, give your brain a chance to rest before the next flight. Concentration during those ten minutes is intense.
When you look at a drone hovering motionless in the air, despite wind, and then moving precisely from one point to the next, you can be assured that it’s flying in GPS Mode – or it’s a very skilled pilot flying the drone. In GPS Mode, the drone fixes its position and holds it until an input is made on the radio-control transmitter. You’re not allowed to fly your drone on GPS Mode for the training and skills test – for the most part.
Instead, training is done in Atti Mode. This will hold the drone’s attitude and position within a parcel of air, but you have to continually compensate for the wind, and therefore drift. That means banking or pitching into the wind to hold the drone’s position – and the open veld of Centurion Flying Field offers little shelter from the wind. Throw in a hot day and the air rising from the dirt road and gravel runways and you have the perfect conditions for whirl-winds to sweep across the ground – it’s good practice.
The lessons are geared towards the final skills test, so, as with manned aviation, you progress through the exercises and manoeuvres 1-19 required for the test. Once you can hold the drone in a stable hover, with the ‘tail’ pointing towards you, you fly horizontal and vertical boxes. Then, you can progress to flying boxes in the direction of flight, followed by nose-in manoeuvres, a ‘point of interest’ circle around a point, with the nose pointing to the centre of the circle the whole time, and lastly a few circuits – just like a circuit in an aeroplane, but without the touch and go.
It sounds simple enough, and is for someone who has been flying RC planes for years or has quite a bit of experience flying drones. I have only flown RC helicopters, mostly in doors for fun here and there, and it took some mental aerobatics to get familiar with the counter-intuitive inputs when the drone isn’t facing in the same direction as you are. Flying ‘tail-in’, forward is forward, left is left, right is right, and so on. Turn, say, 90 degrees to the left, and forward is left, left is back (home), right is forwards (away from you), and backwards moves the drone to the right. Face the nose towards you and every input is the opposite – to get the drone heading in the correct direction, it helps to imagine you are balancing the drone on a broomstick. Move your hand right and it will topple left, backwards and it will topple forwards, etc. Add in drift from the wind, and the necessary pitch and bank compensation, and things get interesting. Change the direction in which the nose is facing, while trying to hold position in the wind and switching your thinking from balancing a broomstick to ‘left is home’ (towards you), and things come undone. You’d like to throw your hands in the air and yell for help, but there is only one controller, and you are holding it. So, you take a quick deep breath, rotate your brain and regain composure and control.
A few lessons later, and orientation happens more naturally. After just seven hour-long lessons and 2.2 hours of flight time later, I had mastered the manoeuvres to the degree needed to pass the skills test, and, with a letter of recommendation from my instructor, RPAS Training Academy booked a slot with the DFE.
In addition to testing your flying competence, the skills test brings together everything you learned during the theory training. My training was a little disjointed due to work commitments, but a month after sitting in my first ground school lecture, my flight test went smoothly, and I walked away with a multi-rotor RPL.
For more information on RPAS Training Academy, visit www.rpastraining.com