So you wanna be a drone pilot Part 5

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Part 5: And it’s not about flying a drone either

Before we ever get a drone into the air, there are hours and sometimes days of flight planning required to ensure everything goes as planned

Looking in from the outside it’s easy to think that all we do is fly drones. But if what I’ve described above hasn’t told the full story, let me make it really, really clear. Flying drones is only a small part of what we do as a commercial UAV operator.

Before we ever get to fly a drone, we first have to find and win the business. This means spending many hours every week making phone calls, responding to emails, attending meetings, doing presentations, writing proposals or quotations, chasing them up, securing required permissions and doing job safety assessments.

We also carefully plan each flight in our mission planning system before we leave the office to ensure we know exactly how the job will be conducted, how many staff will be needed to ensure safety, what equipment we’ll need to take and how long we’ll be on site to capture what we need to meet client expectations. This includes carefully checking and rechecking weather forecasts to make sure we’ll have enough light and not be socked in by cloud or rained out. We also need to check airspace maps to see what else is going to be in the air around us.

For most jobs we need to travel to and from the client’s location, which can often be two or three hours away – sometimes much further. This means before we leave the office we have to check all our equipment to make sure it’s complete, correctly maintained and ready for use (which includes UAVs, batteries, spares, laptops, tablets, radios, cables, etc, etc), grab any extras we may need for a long day like a generator, inverter, battery chargers, icebox, drinks and snacks, pack all of this into our truck and figure out how we’re getting to the job (including traffic in many cases).

We typically plan a full day’s flying to get the most out of the weather, leaving around 5 AM and getting back around 6PM. For more remote or distant locations we might plan two or three days flying which may mean we have to plan airline flights, equipment shipping, car hire, accommodation, etc.

When we get to a job site, we need to spend time chatting to the client, setting up our equipment, unpacking and checking UAVs, doing site safety inspections, assessing and mitigating risks (which often include people walking through, animals that may intrude into the site, low-flying aircraft and helicopters, trees, hilly or mountainous terrain, tall buildings and other obstacles, flight paths, take-off and landing areas, etc), setting out safety equipment (like reflective cones and tapes), and organising staff in roles like spotter, radio operator, safety monitor, etc.

For really specialised jobs we may need to be laying out ground control points (GCPs) to improve our positional accuracy and working out things like cross-grids and oblique grids to capture all the images we need for 3D models and maps. We may also need to choose which cameras we are using, which filters are being used on each camera, etc.

Once we’ve done all that, we can put our drones in the air and do the fun stuff. It is still fun after all that, isn’t it? Surely. As we fly we need to monitor the area for possible intrusions, monitor the radio for air traffic, monitor the UAVs themselves for system integrity, battery life, etc., and make sure everyone is doing their job properly. We also need to make sure the UAVs are capturing the data we need during and after each flight, plan safe landings, log flights, check aircraft for any damage or issues, pack everything up, chat to the client and then head home.

When we get back we need to return all our checked out equipment to storage, checking every item to make sure it is complete, undamaged and not requiring monthly or quarterly service inspections. We need to file our flight logs, permission forms and safety assessments, then we can get down to creating something special.

To do that we need to transfer all the captured flight data to our office computers, back it up to the cloud and start dissecting and processing it to get to what the client actually expects to receive … which may be normal or panoramic photos, edited video, an orthographic photo, a contour or elevation map, an NDVI crop health map, a volumetric estimate of a stockpile, a 3D virtual model of a building or land area or lots of other possible products.

Aerial images need to be carefully selected, combined and enhanced to meet client expectations

For photography missions this may include checking each photo to see which are the best post-processing candidates, combining multiple exposures of the same scene (AEBs or HDRs) into single photos, combining multiple finished photos into panoramic views, colour-grading images, cropping images and exporting them to formats that meet client needs. The images then need to be uploaded to the cloud where the client can inspect and download them.

Video sequences need to be edited, combined and sequenced to create usable videos

For video missions it may mean selecting video sequences, editing them to find the best and highest impact segments, stitching them together to create continuity and working out the right transitions between scenes, editing again to get to the length the client expects, colour-grading and possibly speeding up or slowing down some segments, choosing appropriate background music, building titles and captions, then exporting the video into a format the client can readily use and uploading the finished video(s) to the cloud for the client to view and download.

There’s a lot of work and skill required to get to the outputs clients really need

For mapping missions we may need to stitch hundreds of overlapping images together into a single, very large orthophoto, edit and clean many hundreds of points in a point cloud to ensure we are only using the images that will contribute most to the finished product, then building textures, 3D models, NDVI maps or what ever it is the client needs to inform their project.

After all that is done and the client has what they need to move on with their project, we still need to worry about recording our expenses for the day, making sure vehicle logs have been completed, enter times and costs into the accounting system, generate a tax invoice and job report and get those out to the client so we’ll get paid!

So as I’ve said a couple of times above, it’s not really about flying drones. That’s only a very small part of the job.

Read Part 6 – And By The Way, Drones Ain’t Drones Solly

Get in touch with Queensland Drones

To find out how we can help you achieve your aerial photography, aerial video and aerial mapping needs, get in touch with us using the links below.