Saturday, May 24, 2014

Chief Flight Instructor Mark C. W. Robinson: Business is offering lessons in piloting drones

When pilot Mark Robinson started his flight school at John Wayne Airport, he knew he would offer instruction for helicopters and planes.

But the 34-year-old aviation entrepreneur also wanted to provide students with an opportunity for something a little different. He considered a third component.

Drone lessons

In a county known for its wealth — JWA, after all, offers valet parking for its well-heeled fliers — Robinson figured he might find clients who needed help learning to fly the fancy toys.

Some people may pay up to $15,000 for a recreational drone. He imagined the extra price of learning to fly the machine without damaging it would be worthwhile.

The lessons also offered a cheaper alternative for those who might not want to shell out the price to get a pilot's license, yet wanted to practice flying aerial vehicles of some sort.

And so when Robinson's business, Revolution Aviation, held its official ribbon cutting earlier this year, it was billed as the fifth flight school in Orange County and the only one to offer helicopter, plane and, yes, drone instruction.

"It's a market that does seem to be getting a lot of press," he said in an interview preceding the February ceremony. "It's a market that is up and coming."

He later added, "I think it could be huge."

Getting Educated

Robinson's $750 full-day course for drone newbies begins in a classroom, where students receive drone-related information on air space, mechanics and public opinion.

They learn where they should fly the machines (an auditorium or an open field) and where they shouldn't (within three miles of the airport).

Then into a helicopter they go, buckling in for a 20-minute ride intended to imbue the soon-to-be drone operators with an improved sense for how the machines move.

"We actually think you get a better respect for the aircraft," explained Robinson, who used to fly the Goodyear blimp.

Manufactured in a variety of models, drones might resemble miniature planes or helicopters. What sets them apart from remote control devices is that they can be programmed to fly by themselves.

If operators become confused about the machine's orientation, they can simply direct the device to return to the place from which it took off, where it might land or hover, depending on how it has been programmed.

Or, as pointed out in the highly publicized case of Amazon's plans to deliver packages by way of drone, the machines could be programmed go to a specific "waypoint," as a coordinate is called. They can also be steered by an operator beyond his or her line of sight.

But part of the fun is learning to fly the machines in what is called free mode, a setting that gives complete control over its movements to the user, letting it swoop up, flip over or spin incessantly — at least until the battery dies.

The Specs

For the drone flight portion of the course, Robinson suggests clients bring their own machines if they have them.

Otherwise, students can try out the company's $6,000 German model, which is called a "quadcopter" because it has four rotors with spinning blades.

The device is about 2 feet long and weighs about 2 pounds. The body is made of carbon fiber, on which a compass, GPS, battery and speed controls have been mounted. A white antenna resembling a coffee straw sticks out of the top.

Named Justin, who was the first student to take a drone lesson at Revolution Aviation, it can fly so high that the operator might not be able to see it.

For new students, though, Robinson suggests they stick to flying it about 10 feet off the ground.

First, the remote must be turned on, then the drone switch clicked over. The throttle is shoved sideways, the blades begin to whir, and then up the drone goes.

In a perfect world — i.e. a world without wind, in which the battery is brand new and fully charged — the drone can fly for 22 minutes, Robinson said. After that, the battery must be replaced, or recharged in a car.

Dressed for work in a green jumpsuit and aviators, Robinson comes armed for drone flight practice with spare bolts and blades, in addition to a spare battery.

If it suffers a major crash? Well, he will just have to pay the price to fix it.

Waiting for Demand

So far, the devices seem popular with journalists and real estate agents — people Robinson believes he can help. Even police departments have been known to use them.

But the lessons haven't quite caught on as Robinson imagined. Flights and training with helicopters generate the bulk of the fledgling company's revenue, while there have only been a handful of people interested in the smaller-scale drone flying.

Plenty of yachtsmen will pay large sums for their boats, but drones imply spying, crashing and questions of responsibility, Robinson said — not exactly what conservative Newport Beach residents are seeking.

"I think it's a technology that's up and coming. They might be ahead of their time, I don't know," said Steve Rosansky, president of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Rosansky noted that privacy issues remain to be worked out — maybe some people like to tan nude in their backyards and don't want drone-mounted cameras flying overhead, he said — but he imagined that as the devices get cheaper, more people will be interested in using them for different things.

Then, when the demand starts to occur, Revolution Aviation will be there as the established company, the first local business, to help provide instruction.

This is for Fun

Robinson attributes the slow uptake in part to his decision not to emphasize promotion of the lessons just yet. Before they get going full swing, he wants to be sure the company is fully prepared, perhaps with an employee who focuses solely on those classes.

For now, in addition to the full-day course, Robinson also offers $550 half-day classes for the more experienced, or $95 an hour for those just seeking a little help.

He turns away students looking to fly drones commercially, suggesting instead that they take a more long-term course. The University of North Dakota, for example, offers a bachelor's degree in aeronautics with a major in unmanned aircraft systems operations.

Those who wish to use drones for commercial operations must be cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires flights to have a certified aircraft and a licensed pilot, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

This authorization would include any real estate agency looking to use drones to photograph its properties, as well as a private flight school that charged students for lessons, he said.

To date, only one commercial operation has met FAA criteria and received authorization for flight, which was limited to the Arctic, he said.

The Rules

Although operating standards exist, people who wish to fly model aircraft as a hobby do not require approval by the FAA.

Because Robinson is not flying drones for clients, he believes Revolution Aviation is simply helping provide such customers with information.

"They're paying us for our knowledge and our expertise to instruct them," Robinson said. "We're not being hired to provide a service."

Meanwhile, a Costa Mesa resident, who did not wish to be identified for privacy reasons, taught himself to fly a remote control quadcopter using a $33 device available, ironically enough, on Amazon.

"If you fly that for a month and you get decent at it, then you can get into the hobby-grade stuff," he said, adding that he had a background in racing remote control cars.

On a recent Tuesday morning, about 18 months after he first began dabbling with quadcopters, the electronics engineer was at a park in Newport Beach flying two different remote control devices he had built himself.

He waved as a Newport Beach police officer drove past. (Police spokeswoman Jen Manzella said they do not enforce air traffic issues, but would respond if there were a public nuisance complaint. So far, drones have not been a significant issue for the department.)

The copter, with red and green lights shining, emitted a buzzing sound as it flipped and turned in the air. He continued to practice flying it, taking caution when pedestrians came near, and only packed up reluctantly when the clock pushed toward 10 — time to get going to work.

Story and photos:

Flight instructor James Baker, right, and chief flight instructor Mark C. W. Robinson, both with Revolution Aviation, demonstrate the AscTec Hummingbird Tuesday at Bonita Creek Park in Newport Beach.

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