Last year, Revolution Aviation became the first private helicopter flight school to offer instruction in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). There was plenty of new ground to cover at the time; only the military and select colleges were training UAV pilots, no certification standards existed, and commercial unmanned flights were still banned by the FAA. Revolution joined dozens of other industry pioneers—ranging from real-estate photographers to news outlets and moviemakers—brave enough to fly their drones ahead of Sept. 2015, when the finalized FAA regulations are expected to change the industry. With 2015 here and UAV regulations imminent, Rotor & Wing has caught up with founder Mark Robinson to discuss how his school has fared, and how it’s preparing for the end of aviation’s wild west.
Regulations and Loopholes
|Revolution Aviation’s Hummingbird UAV with an R44. Photos courtesy Revolution Aviation
Historically, forming a UAV flight school hasn’t been easy given the FAA’s prohibition of commercial drone operations. Private universities, along with other businesses, have typically had to file for exemption from the existing (and manned aircraft-centric) airworthiness certification process through Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. To further complicate matters, the FAA is preparing more permanent regulations governing the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) weighing under 55 lbs. The official announcement is expected any day, and many believe the new ruling will include certification standards for commercial UAV pilots. The FAA may even choose to require licensure in manned aircraft.
In the meantime, FAA spokesman Les Dorr stipulates the requirements that a UAV flight school has to follow: “The two major things are: they can’t fly outdoors without getting authorization from the FAA, and they can’t imply that the training will lead to any sort of FAA certification.”
Technically, Revolution Aviation’s AscTec Hummingbird quadcopter is within the purview of the upcoming sUAS ruling. But regardless of any commercial certification standards the FAA decides on, the school’s emphasis on recreational UAV training should protect it from having to seek additional privileges. Robinson equates this to the way a helicopter flight school can offer external load training without having to be certified for commercial external load operations. “No one is hiring us to use the drones for a specific commercial reason,” says Robinson. “They are merely asking us for instruction.”
Time in the Seat
Even if manned aircraft licensure remains optional for would-be UAV pilots, many companies still want their employees to have conventional flight experience. This is where Revolution—a helicopter flight school first and foremost—truly shines. In one example, a student signed up for helicopter training at Revolution prior to working on a UAV contract with Boeing. “They wanted anyone working on the project to at least have a pilot’s license. So I was the proud instructor to have taught her and given her the license,” says Robinson. “Has she flown since? No. Does she understand the dynamics of the aircraft, the movement, the wind, and the fluctuation? Yeah. Boeing required that.”
Mirroring the commercial sector, Revolution has integrated a 20-minute helicopter flight into its full-day UAV program (the longest of three training options it offers students). This helps UAV students internalize the dynamics of flight in a way they might not be able to from the ground. “When you’re in the helicopter, and you try to grab the cyclic, for a new person it goes all over the place like a pendulum,” says Robinson. With a quadcopter, “it’s very stable, but there’s still a center of gravity point. Whereas if you suspend it (or with a five-bladed system if you have one engine go out), it will still fly; it will just be lopsided.”
For those not seeking conventional flight training, Revolution offers either pay-by-hour training, in which a single student and instructor learn to operate a UAV together, or a half-day course that includes UAV flight time, teaches ground school topics such as maintenance, mechanics, and airspace, and discusses the social impact of unmanned aviation.
Safety Procedures in a New Market
|Revolution Aviation founder Mark Robinson with a student in a UAV training session.
Recreational UAV operations have rapidly grown across the country. In response to the explosion of consumer interest, the FAA recently launched a “Know Before You Fly” campaign to advise the public on general best practices. It’s clearer now than ever before how to safely engage in the hobby. But the UAV community’s lack of pilot training is still a concern for some, especially for the conventional pilots with whom they share the sky. UAVs operated below 400 feet AGL may pose little risk to distant passenger jets, but it’s a different story for low-flying helicopters and aircraft on approach to a runway.
At a recent public event that had attracted UAV pilots, Robinson noticed that five of the drones were infringing on the controlled airspace of a nearby airport. “They didn’t know where everything was with regards to the airspace,” says Robinson. “I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I had to tell someone: ‘Guys, your building is on final to a Class Charlie airspace, and it’s literally 1.5 miles north and about 2,000 feet east of the final approach corridor.” The UAV pilots appeared oblivious to the invisible airspace boundaries.
Even at his school, Robinson has concerns. “We have a lot of coast, here,” he says, “and if there’s someone flying their drone on the coast and we have a helicopter flying down the coast, I think it’s a matter of when, not if, there’s going to be an incident.” Thanks to a policy that may soon be common at flight schools across the country, Revolution Aviation helicopter instructors are to fly higher than the standard pattern altitude of 500 feet AGL (even as high as 1,800 feet) in order to avoid recreational UAV traffic in the vicinity.
Business is Slowly Growing
|Revolution Aviation provides students with both airborne and
With public perception and media coverage of UAVs growing more positive, Revolution has seen a slow but noticeable growth in interest for training. One motivation may be the price tag of UAVs available for purchase. Buyers of higher-end UAVs in the $25,000-$35,000 price range tend to receive initial training from their dealers. But Robinson has begun talking with local dealers, hoping to collaborate. “Our friends across the airport who are dealers and have seen a huge expansion, we’ve teamed up with them and it’s slowly starting. They can refer us business to train.”
But even smaller UAVs can carry a hefty price tag. One popular quadcopter, the DJI Phantom, can cost over $1,300. Many of Revolution’s first students were mid-range buyers afraid of wrecking their equipment. “We seem to be right in a little bit of a niche in the market,” says Robinson. “[A would-be UAV operator] will just go out there, buy it, try and read the instructions, break it, fix it; and it hurts to do that with a $2,000 machine.” The message is clear: the public wants training. But whether or not the student of the future needs serious time behind the cyclic, Revolution Aviation believes it is ready for business.
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