Category Archives: Drone

A Brief But Deep Glimpse Into the Drone Industry Proper

When opportunity knocks, you answer the door. Have a look at this invite:

Yup. I can do that… he said with his ‘lil heart all a-flutter. I’ve been following the evolution of commercial drone use (and generally all things under the drone sun) for a while now. I’ve written about drones as productivity tools, drones as network security threats, and even drones as a defense against the poaching of elephants. I have my own drones, and am an FAA-licensed Part 107 Remote Pilot.

You could kinda say that I’m into it- like all of it- when it comes to drones. I just find the entire paradigm incredibly fascinating, from benefits to concerns, and from politics to the tech side of it. So when a company like PrecisionHawk wants to talk, I definitely make the time.

Pat Lohman is one of the VPs at PrecisionHawk, and was an absolute gentleman in fielding my questions and lending his insider perspective, and we covered a lot of ground. As a company, PrecisionHawk will certainly sell you drones and high-end sensors. But Lohman educated me on the company’s role as an integrator who provides really powerful analysis for a number of verticals, including agriculture, construction, energy, insurance, and government.


We talked about the specific cases that come with tower sites. It’s easy to sum it all up with “aerial inspection”, but that completely does a disservice to what’s really in play with PrecisionHawk’s services. Before tower construction, highly accurate land surveying is done from the air. Through tower construction, periodic inspections help ensure that the tower is being built right (and after-the-fact inspections for already-built towers reveal construction mistakes that can be dangerous or that work against the structure’s purpose). Once the tower is built, a range of services become relevant.

Picture 3D-mapping of a tower, and everything on it displayed with precise 3D point clouds (see this video primer on 3D point clouds from Vectorworks.) Now lets add in some of that analysis that is PrecisionHawk’s bread-and-butter: a given antenna on the tower is supposed to have a specific orientation to deliver the coverage it was installed to provide. That orientation is determined to be off a couple of degrees, and through various integrations with end customers’ support systems, an alert is generated and a truck gets rolled to adjust the antenna. “Value” takes on a lot of dimensions here, and Lohman stresses that PrecisionHawk is in the business of creating value. That doesn’t just happen because drones are in the air gathering data, but rather as a result of the sophisticated science that happens with that data. The real magic comes after the data collection and mapping is done, and the analytics kick in.

The most value comes from sound, streamlined processes that get the drones up and back down, crunch the data, and provide actionable intel. That’s what PrecisionHawk specializes in.

We spoke of different use cases and where the majority of time gets spent on each. For example, photo and video work is mostly all flying time, while sensor-based work is far more intensive in post processing, after the drones are back on the ground.

Lohman was most accommodating as I jumped around topics. We spoke of how the high and low ends of the drone device space are blurring, and how DJI pretty much owns the space at this point. I asked what impact the “no Chinese drones allowed” regulations have on PrecionHawk’s work with government agencies, and Lohman explained how the company will integrate any platform’s data, but the cost to do one-offs is more because of the added work involved when you get away from the mainstream DJI-type inputs. he was also clear in stressing that the drone itself is secondary in importance to the data it brings home.

I asked if fixed-wing drones have advantages over rotary crafts in different situations, and Lohman patiently gave me a quick history of fixed-wings having their start in agriculture because they could stay up longer when covering huge swaths of land, and how cell sites and structure inspection require the agility of the copters. Lohman also expects more hybrids- drones that can fly with fixed wings but vertically take off and land- to gain mass adoption.

We talked about what sensors see the most action. Here it’s still *mostly* visual missions flown, but thermal inspections are growing, and multi-spectral sensors are a key part of agricultural drone ops. LIDAR is the at the high end of expense when it comes to sensors, and you may pay upwards of $200K for LIDAR. That’s a big pricetag, but this is technology that not so long ago cost in the millions and was reserved for military use.

Finally, we bantered a little about the current fragmented nature of airspace regulation relating to drones (the current mismash of rules between the FAA and local governmental agencies is unsustainable), educational opportunities around unmanned aerial systems at schools like Embry-Riddle and Kansas State, and up-and-coming advocacy groups that seek to improve the commercial drone industry’s standing in a number of fronts. These include the Small UAV Coalition and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and even which is owned by PrecisionHawk and is a framework that gets a growing number of independent licensed drone pilots (like me) work- with common training, ground rules, approach, and respectable pay.




Drone Law Soup

Since I famously became a drone guy, I’ve been getting a wide-ranging education on many aspects of The Droniverse. I’ve been gathering little pieces of content and knowledge that I care about here on this page of this blog, and getting a lot of perspective from more experienced flyers through various user groups and forums. It gets more fascinating every day.

One aspect of dronery (I made that word up) that is truly astounding is just how royally dicked up the regulatory climate far and wide has become when it comes to flying our beloved unmanned aircraft systems. It doesn’t matter whether you are a hobbyist or an FAA-certificated Remote Pilot like myself, the legality of flying drones could not be in a worse state of disarray.

Looking at the FAA’s guidance, you wouldn’t think it could be that bad.

drone rules1

But it is THAT BAD. It seems like every state and many cities, universities, towns, villages, hamlets, and church choirs are making their own rules regarding drone flight. Forget that the FAA is federal and that many/most of these additional regs wouldn’t stand up in court- fighting City Hall ain’t cheap and few individuals are going to have the expendable coin to lawyer up on the issue (and there is no central lobbying force that I know of that could stand up against the growing regulatory morass).

But don’t take my word for it… let’s look at some real world examples.

Santa Clara University says “more no than yes” while Nebraska says “sure”, conditionally.

The State of Connecticut has rightfully recognized the FAA as the sole authority in this space, and it’s Public Act No. 17-52 “Prohibits cities and municipalities in the state from enacting their own drone-related regulations or ordinances.”

But then you have Delaware- despite also “preventing” municipalities from doing their own thing, one town did exactly that (from

Hmmm. It just goes on and on. Here in my corner of the world, each of these has their own legislation/regulations on drone use (most flat-out prohibit drones, or make getting permission so impracticable as to equal prohibition:

And it gets worse… their are dozens of pending/proposed laws on the books in the Democratic People’s Republic of New York alone, not to mention all the legislative activity in other states aimed at drones. See many of them here– although I think this site is unaware of as many as it knows about.

As with any technology, drones can be used for good and by people who make a living from them doing really innovative things. And they can also be used for pure stupidity by peeping toms, beach pervies, village idiots and others in the “we need laws because of THESE morons” category. The problem is that our fine civil servants (I use to be one myself, so I know first-hand of what I speak) are too quick to group all drone operators into the same bucket, or have no clue on existing laws or where their own regulatory reach legally ends before passing new ordinances.

And… it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.

If you are new to drones or thinking about getting into it, I have no doubt that you’ll find “flying legal” to be challenging in many, many locations. You may also be tempted to ignore the ugly patchwork of federal, state, and local laws and take your chances flying illegally. If you do, more power to you… but please remember that when you do the truly stupid stuff that becomes a nuisance, you set in motion a Butterfly Effect that ultimately makes life tough for those of us who strive to be legal.

Thanks for reading.

I Don’t Fly Drones, I’m an Unmanned Aircraft System Remote Pilot


Today, I sat for the Federal Aviation Agency’s “Part 107” exam. I passed by a comfortable margin, but it was no walk in the park. I studied hard, probably a total of 25-35 hours (I’ll tell you how I studied in a bit). I made an appointment for the exam at a flying school that also tests for every level of pilot skill. I paid $150, filled out FAA paperwork, and had an awesome test proctor named Mario. (He flew on EC-47s in Vietnam doing electronic warfare, which was my own career field under the USAF’s Tactical Air Command a dozen and a half years later. It’s really a small world sometimes.) I had butterflies, as it was a formal test setting… I struggled with maybe 10 of the 60 questions, but ultimately found that my studying had paid off when I saw my final score.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are a real deal in the aviation world these days. You can read elsewhere about just how big of a force they are becoming, but if you are going to use drones ANYWHERE in a business setting then you should be licensed as a remote pilot. For one thing, it’s the law. For another, you will learn a lot along the way as you study for the exam that will help you to not get in trouble as you use your drone for business.

Get Your Mind Right

Drones are playthings. Toys. Model flying machines that you race and take videos with on the hobby side of life. There’s no negativity here, and I use my own drone in this way as well sometimes. But when you cross that line and put your small unmanned aircraft to practical, revenue-generating operational use, EVERYONE benefits from you reshaping your attitude. That UAS is a legitimate aircraft (you’ll put a tail number on it) and you are a licensed pilot. You and your craft can achieve great things, but you also have to understand where you fit in the overall framework of the aviation system. Skip it all and be a rogue operator, and you can easily put lives and property at risk- and I’m not being dramatic. The journey to getting that license will teach you incredible things about the aeronautical world that you’ll be a part of.

How to Approach the Study Process

If you are an accomplished self-study kinda person, then read on. If you don’t do so good teaching yourself new and complicated material- and this is absolutely a complicated body of knowledge- then you probably ought to invest in one of the many available online ground schools. If you’re serious about going down this road, it will be time and money well spent.

I happen to be very good at self-study, with more years than I care to admit spent perfecting techniques that work for me. There are a a lot of blogs and videos out there about “How I passed the Part 107 exam”, and each is a personal testimony that may or may not bring value to you. What comes next here is my own methodology- I make no promises that it will work for you. But what may be different about my approach is that I also happen to be an educator, researcher, writer, and analyst. I think critically, and I generally don’t cut corners.

What Worked For Me

Here we go.

You are after achievement of competency/mastery in a working knowledge of these areas:

  1. Applicable regulations relating to small unmanned aircraft system rating privileges, limitations, and flight operation
  2. Airspace classification and operating requirements, and flight restrictions affecting small unmanned aircraft operation
  3. Aviation weather sources and effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft performance
  4. Small unmanned aircraft loading and performance
  5. Emergency procedures
  6. Crew resource management
  7. Radio communication procedures
  8. Determining the performance of small unmanned aircraft
  9. Physiological effects of drugs and alcohol
  10. Aeronautical decision-making and judgment
  11. Airport operations
  12. Maintenance and preflight inspection procedures

This is the prize that your eyes need to stay on. Now get to it- and have a notebook at the ready.

  • Visit this FAA page– bookmark it and refer to it often (some exam answers are on the page). Download the PDF version of each of the Suggested Study Materials and give each at least one read-through. Don’t get hung up on memorizing stuff yet, but try to remember what is in each resource. You’ll be coming back to them.
  • Watch this video by Tony Northrup. I love his delivery, his style, and that he gave of his time and perspective freely for the rest of us. I do NOT agree with his assessment that the Part 107 exam was a cake-walk. I know that mine certainly was not. Refer back to parts about sectional charts, METARS, and TAFs as often as you need to. You need to be as comfortable with all these as he is.
  • Take yourself to the free Part 107 exam site at the King Flight School. Note that you can test on each individual knowledge area, and I recommend that you do. Then take the practice test with 60 questions from all the areas at least a couple of times. GET THAT NOTEBOOK OUT. Through the King Practice tests, you’ll start to find specific areas that stump you. Write those questions down in your notebook. Don’t get hung up on them. Take a break from King… but you’re not done here.
  • Take yourself to the 3DR Part 107 practice test pages. You’ll find great overlap with King, but the look and feel is different enough to help you to not fall under the spell of simple memorization of any one test site. The same guidance on stumpers applies here- write them in your notebook. But don’t get down on yourself for anything that isn’t clicking- this is some pretty arcane stuff in spots. You’re not done here either…
  • If you have an Android device, get this app. Like the King site, you can test on individual areas or the whole mix, and there is also a handy Study Mode with decent explanations. Here too, use that notebook when something stumps you.
  • Run through ALL THREE OF THESE PRACTICE TEST FRAMEWORKS a couple of times. By now, you’ll feel your confidence growing in spots and frustrations mounting in others.
  • Hopefully, you have several pages in your notebook of individual questions- that represent discreet topics- to work on. And you’ll work on them via the FCC docs that you downloaded back in the beginning. The PHAK will be your main go-to here. Don’t just clarify the question that confused you- remember that the question represents an entire topic, and you have to explore all facets of that topic. I can’t stress this enough, especially for the Sectional Charts and Airspace Classes. Gotta know them cold, I tellya.
  • In the remaining time, rotate through your notes/areas that challenge you, and each of the practice tests. By now you’ll be somewhat in the trap of having memorized many of the questions and answers. Discipline yourself to slow it down, not be a robot, and actually read the words while thinking about the bigger topic.


How Did This End Up Working For Me?

Pretty good, actually. I felt that I had gone far past brute memorization of practice tests, and actually learned A LOT. (I also want to build on that knowledge through real life experiences as a commercial UAS pilot). There were questions that threw me for a loop on the real exam, but I learned enough in studying to make decent guesses and to rule out bad answers.

As a Part 107 pilot, I have to recertify every 24 months. I’m comfortable that my initial studying was done with sufficient depth of retention (and sparking of the desire to keep learning along the way) that I’ll be in pretty good shape when I do this again in 2020.

Good luck to you on your own quest to get licensed.


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