Low cost UAV has been advance in leap and bounce in recent year. Today general public can spend a few thousand dollar and a set of fully automatic UAV can be purchase and start taking aerial image and video. At least most of those who selling it hope you"ll to believe this is how simple is it.
Being involve in RC for the last twenty years, we use to spend a few months to help a new RC pilot to earn his wings. Along the way may be a few repair or sometime a few kits are require for the unlucky one.
Today technology has been greatly advance, we have flight simulator, autopilot and so on to help us to complete our flying mission. So is it true that now we can buy a UAV system off the shelf and start using it to get the data that we require ?
Recently I have an opportunity to evaluate if low cost UAV can be integrated to a GIS team of a plantation company. My project is to supply a low cost UAV system, train up a team of GIS executive staffs ( six of them ) to operate the UAV within three training session. Three days per session.
The objective is after the training session, the staffs should able to operate the UAV independently. Because of the restricted open space available in the operation area, and possible wind direction change, automatic landing feature in the autopilot may not a good choice. Manual landing seems mandatory in this situation. So manual landing is one of the our main objective.
The UAV system is Skywalker base with APM and Mission Planner as autopilot and ground control station.
The training is divided into four sections. Basic radio control airplane operation, ground control station software training, Flight simulator training and real radio control airplane flight training.
The first two section is relatively easy, Basically the students are introduced with the basic knowledge of radio control airplane, radio control system and related electronic. For ground control station, the students were introduced with the various interface and function of Mission Planner, how to plan a mission, mission monitoring and so on.
The harder parts are the flight simulator and actual radio control airplane flight training. It is easy to say : up elevator.......turn left........level......ect but for a guy who never try radio control airplane, he really do not have the eye-hand coordination require to control the airplane in the air. Another problem is a new RC pilot not use to see the difference position of an airplane in the air.
To help the trainees gain eye-hand coordination as quick as possible, we use flight simulator. Our choice is Realflight 6. It is an excellent flight simulator with great graphic. We start the simulation with the students flying around freely. Very quickly they’ll find it is almost next to impossible to control the airplane to fly in the way they wish. After sometime, I fly a right hand traffic pattern as demo and ask them to do the same.
The simulation training session for each student is 10 minutes. I found that after 10 minutes or so, the student will start to lost concentration and subsequence training time is counter productive.
After a few sessions, all the students had develop some eye hand coordination and able to control the airplane to fly some recognisable traffic pattern but the altitude control is poor. In the evening, I let the students try their hand on my Skywalker with APM under stabilized mode. The reasons to let them fly real RC plane as soon as possible is let them had a feel of how the real things feel and looks while it was in the air. It is to my surprise that all of them can fly the right hand rectangle pattern at three mistake high with verbal instruction. At the end of the first training session, the confident of the students soar as they see for themselves that they can actually fly the plane with guidance.
The next training session is schedule two weeks after the first session. The students are require to practice computer flight simulation during their free time. These two weeks time is design to let the students develop eye-hand coordination. There is really no better way other than time to let the student to develop and acquire the connection and reflex require to fly RC plane.
We meet up two weeks later, now the students has trim down to 4 persons. Two of them really had a hard time to get the plane under control with flight simulator. It is true that everyone can learn to fly RC plane but some may need longer practice.
This session will emphasis on actual flight training with some knowledge of APM parameter and tuning. We go to the flying field as early as 3.00 pm. Arm with the experience acquired from the flight simulator, three of them can fly comfortably with some verbal instruction. Among the three, one of them excel in showing total control of the plane. After a few flight, I let him try some low pass and looks like he can handle it. Other students continue to fly traffic pattern in safe altitude.
In the late evening when the wind was calm, l take the risk and let the good student try to land the plane under stabilized mode. To my surprise he actually able to land it in one piece although he miss the runway. Subsequent flight show that he can land the plane consistently. In the following two days training, all the students can made a landing although some landing approach looks scary, but none of them broke the plane.
Now the training was completed and back to the mission field. Can the students handle the UAV as expected ? I wish to say under my high quality, super efficient training program......bra bra bra......mission accomplished.
Unfortunately the answer is mixed. All of them can plan a mission, set up the camera and assemble the plane ready for mission, but even the best student do not has confident to land the plane in the mission field. The landing area is a small football field surrounded with building and oil palm tree. Therefore in the initial stage, I send an experience RC pilot to help bring the plane down. ( you may guess from the picture who he is )
The students continue their training in the evening after mission flight. Two of them can actually make good landing in calm condition after a few days of hard work. But they still need more practice and experience to become a proficient pilot.
In conclusion, I feel that with the help of computer flight simulator, students can master the basic flight technique very fast. But to be able to have total control and made consistence good landing approach and eventually land the plane really need some time for the skill to develop. We need time to let our eye, brain and hand to communicate effectively and work in harmony.
Finally, Is low cost UAV system plug and play ? I'm sure not quite yet. For a new user to operate our low cost UAV, quality training is very important to ensure safety and effective UAV operation. Some potential user may miss lead by "autopilot" thinking that everything is automatic. I hope anyone who is planning to buy a UAV, regardless if it is low cost or not, quality training should be integrated in the purchase. This, in my opinion, is the most important step toward successful UAV operation.