So, you’re venturing out to the flight field for the first time. Your students are thrilled, and the class’s excitement is palpable. For most of your aspiring pilots, this will be their introduction to the skies — the keystone to their lifelong love of drones. With these invigorating STEM lessons and permanent social and technical skills under their belts, you’re laying the groundwork for endless career and high education opportunities.
Now, it’s not life or death by any means, but how you handle classroom flight time — especially the first few trips to the flight field — has a huge impact on how your students perceive their drone education. It doesn’t need to be the end-all-be-all, but a well-run UAV experience makes all the difference — not only to the students, but especially to the educators.
Before heading out for any maiden voyages, there are a few things you’ll need to do to make sure you are not only prepared to get into the air, but to stay there. Assembled by teachers and after-school professionals who have run their own drone camps and programs, Drone Club 101 hold the secrets to a successful flight program. These are the time-tested tips and tricks you’ll need to turn average piloting experiences into immersive STEM adventures.
1. Make sure you have enough LiPo Batteries
If you don't have any experience with LiPo batteries, you’ll be surprised to know that the average life of a mini drone liPo battery is less than 10 minutes — if you’re doing some hardcore flying, it’s even less than that. Make sure that you have enough batteries for each student to get enough flight time.
LiPo Batteries also require a lot of time to charge, with average times taking 60-70 minutes. If you have lots of batteries or students looking to fly, it’s a great idea to invest in a multi-charger, a device that allows you to charge multiple batteries at the same time.
2. Bring everything you need to make repairs on the spot
Even professional drone pilots crash. Wherever you’re flying, you’re going to need to be prepared to replace broken props, fix propeller guards, repair drone components and everything in between.
- If your drone comes with special tools, make sure you’ve got those handy.
- You’re going to spend the most time replacing drone props, so make sure you have plenty of extras on-hand.
- If you happen to have a backup radio controller, don’t forget to bring that as a just-in-case.
3. Are you ready for an emergency?
At the flight field, accidents can happen, especially with novice pilots. Drones are going to crash, and hair might get tangled. LiPo batteries are filled with volatile chemicals which can combust. Are you prepared for everything that can go wrong?
- Have a first aid kit and fire extinguisher on hand
- Practice safety precautions with your students — make sure they know how to react in an emergency
- Lead by example. Keep a cool-head during any situation
4. Cross the T’s and dot the I’s to make sure you’re flying legally
Your legality check is going to differ based on the type of flying you’re doing and where you’re doing it. If you’re flying indoors, you’re able to skirt a lot of the federal regulations regarding drone flight (the FAA can’t control the airspace within your gymnasium or classroom). However, if you are flying outdoors, there are a few things you need to consider.
- Are you aware of and in compliance with all local and federal regulations? (Not sure what they are? Check out http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/ and register with the AMA.)
- If your drone weighs more than 0.55lb, have you registered with the FAA?
- Have you contacted the Air Traffic Control of any airports within a 5-mile radius? (Download the FAA’s B4UFly app to learn where your nearest airports are.)
The federal regulations regarding drone flight are set in stone, but the ones in your community are always changing. Before you head outside to fly, make sure you’re up-to-date with any new laws or regulations in your state or county to ensure your flight time won’t get cut short by the red-and-blue lights.
5. Droneologist meets Meteorologist
If you’re flying outdoors, take a peek at the weather report. Most drones are moderately waterproof, but the smaller and lighter your set-up gets, the more easily it will be pushed around by the wind. A mini drone can turn into a mini rocket in a windstorm! That’s why we recommend an indoor location for your class’s first flight experience, one which provides new pilots with:
- A climate-controlled environment
- Strict boundaries for instructors to establish
- Simplicity of FAA and AMA regulations and registrations
6. Pay attention when you fly
The most common way people crash their drones is by getting distracted while flying. To avoid these costly distractions with your class, work to set up an environment that shifts your students’ perceptions of what they’re learning. In other words, make sure they know that while drones are fun, there is a small amount of risk you take when you begin flying — if they want to protect their classmates and themselves, there’s no room for horseplay during drone time.
A good way to keep pilots focused is with a few flight rules, guidelines like these that will help keep student eyes on their drone.
- The flight field is not a playground
- Unless you’re a spotter or part of a team, save the conversation for after the drone has landed
Observers need to stand behind pilots in a designated “safety zone”
Now, it’s a fine line to walk. On the one hand, safety is a priority, but on the other, you don’t want to discourage and scare students away from ever investigating outside of their comfort zone. Frame flight time as a responsibility to keep everyone safe, and as long as your students know the risks involved, the general classroom perception should change.
7. If you’re flying First-Person View (FPV), set each drone up on separate video channels
An FPV telemetry system is an incredible flight feature, allowing pilots to become modern-day pod-racers, seeing real-time video feed from the drone’s point-of-view. Typically this system incorporates a camera, video transmitter and video antenna to send real-time video feed from the drone to a monitor, which can then be viewed by the pilot. But with multiple drones in the air at the same time, you’ll want to make sure each drone is set to its own channel to avoid interference. Even on separate channels, your FPV frequencies can still interfere with one another.
Just like how different radio stations have to transmit on different frequencies, when multiple drones are in the air each needs to be transmitting video on a unique channel to avoid interfering with each other. The type of telemetry system installed in the drone and radio controller determine which frequency bands your drone has to work with:
To get the most out of your airspace, be sure to separate your pilots as far away as possible — the more distance, the less video interference.
- This means that the size of your flight field and the type of flying you’re looking to do have a very large impact on how many pilots you can have in the air at the same time. If you’ve got a small area, you might need to limit the number of fliers. If you’ve got the football field to yourself, spread every pilot out and let those drones hit the sky.
8. Know how to react during a crash
This tip takes some practice, but every pilot should know how to throttle-down (stop the propellers from spinning) quickly, especially when they see they’re about to crash. It’s a split second decision, but it can help mitigate damage to the drone, propellers and anything the drone may be crashing into. Just like how it’s instinct to slam on the brakes before a car crash, try to instill the same reaction in your students.
After throttling down, make sure you immediately disarm the drone. Failing to disarm after a crash is one of the biggest causes of damage to drones as their motors continue to try to spin, even after nose-diving into the ground.
9. Keep students involved
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you need to have plans for the pilots-in-training who aren’t training. What are the rest of your students going to do while others are flying? Try to engage them with tasks that don’t require a radio controller, things like:
- Spotters: every pilot needs a co-pilot, especially if they’re flying FPV. A spotter’s job is to keep line-of-sight on a drone, helping the pilot maintain control by giving them pointers or by cautioning them about upcoming hazards or where their drone crashed.
- Course Crew: It’s the Course Crew’s job to design and maintain the flight course, building and modifying the obstacles pilots need to navigate.
Mini drones allow you to include a lot more students than regular-sized quadcopters, but you need to make sure no one is just waiting around for their turn. Get creative, and keep everyone engaged.
10. Realize how much time it takes to be good at flying
It typically takes 40-50 flights to feel like you have real piloting skills. That’s at least 40 different trips to the flight field before you really feel comfortable behind the radio controller. If your class can’t afford to log that many hours, you’ll need to have an end-game that fits their experience. What will be the best ending point for your program?
If your pilots are Aces, then maybe a race is the perfect way to tie up your program. But, if they still fall into the novice category, maybe a timed lap or a task to navigate around an obstacle and land is more suitable. Find what fits your program, and go out on a high note.
11. Post-Flight Inspection
After a crash or if you’re throttling down for the day, it’s important to perform a Post-Flight inspection of your drone to ensure its safe for use again. Just like regular automobile check-ups, these inspections can help catch any problems before they happen, saving you money and effort down the road.
- Disarm the drone before beginning inspection
- Inspect the LiPo battery for any serious physical damage, such as punctures or puffiness, which would require replacing the battery.
- Remove all props and check for any that are bent, nicked or broken. These will need to be replaced before the next flight.
- Check that all exposed wires are intact. If any have been nicked, wrap them with electrical tape and order replacement parts.
- Inspect the other physical components of the drone and look for any damage or repairs that may need to happen before the next flight.
- Charge the batteries and securely re-attach props and batteries before next flight.
Another no-brainer, but how you organize your drone supplies can have a huge impact on your program. Stay organized, make sure your students have everything they need to perfect their piloting skills (all the extra props and charged batteries they desire) and devise an orderly way to determine which batteries need to be charged, and which need to be discharged down to a safe storage voltage. This can be as simple as labeling two different bins.
How many cycles a LiPo lasts depends on how well it’s maintained. Following the best practice for LiPo care will extend the life of your batteries:
- Avoid discharging below 3.6V per cell
- Always discharge to a storage voltage of 3.8V per cell if batteries won’t be used within a day. Be prepared: a fully charged battery may take a couple of hours to discharge to storage voltage. An easy alternative is to fly the batteries down.
As the instructor, be prepared to directly supervise all battery charging to ensure that all safety precautions are consistently followed. Set up the charger in an instructor area and establish a system for returning batteries to the fireproof bag at the end of each day.
13. Learn from your students
They’re your biggest critics. After every new activity, host a wrap-up discussion and allow your students to talk freely about what they did and didn’t like about that day’s activities.
- What was hard?
- What challenges did you overcome?
- What didn’t you like?
- How will you make the next day even better?
Learn from them and apply their critiques to your next lessons.________________________________________________________________________
For even more information on running the perfect mini drone program, tune in to the Ready, Set, Drone! Webinar on January 31st where real teachers and educational professionals will be discussing exactly how to fine-tune your STEM aerial robotics initiative.