The following are a series of observations written on sticky notes and in the margins of printed-out lecture PowerPoints over the last two years.

They are, collectively, a series of things I’ve seen while learning and teaching drone journalism. They’re notes I’ve made in flight labs held on the dusty floor of a livestock center and in review sessions where students smeared fingerprints on the screen trying to count minutes in a degree of latitude.

Some of them are suggestions from the Missouri Drone Journalism flight lab teaching assistants and some come from emails from students. Some come from seeing what questions students struggled with on tests. And some just come from me recognizing after the fact that I made the wrong call as a teacher.

This isn’t just about the teaching of drone journalism. It’s for all of us doing drone journalism, because we’re largely self-taught and with a few licensed pilot exceptions, we’re all going through the same process: Take the FAA’s Part 107 test, maybe with a teacher or at a bootcamp or maybe just studying ourselves with some books and YouTube videos. 

It doesn’t matter how we get there. We all end up at the same spot: with a drone in the air, trying to chronicle whatever thing is below it.

Those of us teaching and practicing drone journalism are not, usually, FAA-certified flight instructors. We haven’t taken a test that says we know how to teach meteorology or communications protocol. Those of us who teach it – and it’s not just academics – are pioneers somewhat, taking parts of our teaching style from other subjects and combining it with our nerdy passion for flying drones. We teach people who are interested, but not so interested in aviation that they went to flight school to become pilots. So our challenge is this: Whether we’re in a classroom or a newsroom, how do we teach the technical aspects of drone journalism as well as we teach the inverted pyramid or how to write a voiceover?

I talk about students below, but it really can be anyone learning to fly a drone.

  1. Gaming experience is more valuable than you think. The biggest determinant in skill at the beginning of our 15-week course is if someone is a gamer. This shouldn’t be surprising, but still kind of was. Our students who did the best right out of the gate were the ones who had spent considerable time honing their eye-hand coordination playing PC or console games. And there was a wide difference in skills at the beginning of the course. The biggest difference in skill sets early on was in the crispness of control movements and control translation — how correctly would a pilot get a drone moving in the correct direction?
  1. We need to remember that we are initiating students into a foreign culture and language. The FAA exam and materials assume a base level of understanding of aerodynamics that most students don’t have. The standard text for the FAA Part 107 exam is the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, or PHAK, which has most all the answers for the test, including a detailed chapter on basic aerodynamics. But it doesn’t really teach them. And here’s the problem with that: Aviation has a very specific vernacular and it needs to be understood to gain the context of the situation or the question being asked. When a prospective pilot is going through the Part 61 private pilot course, they have a flight instructor who initiates them into the language, values and culture of aviation. We need to make sure that we’re doing the same thing in classes even as educators more used to teaching the nut graf than what an N-number means.

    I spent an hour of lecture on how the numbers around the compass correlate to the points of the compass and the numbers painted on the bottom of runways. And I’d say roughly half the class didn’t understand that second part. This is problematic because neither the FAA test nor the real world says things like “The wind is 15 knots coming out of the north-northeast.” Instead, it looks like “03015KT” and sounds like “Wind is Zero-Three-Zero at 15.”
  2. Students are drinking out of a firehose. I teach a 15-week class. Seven of the first eight weeks are all about aerodynamics, airspace, weather, traffic procedures — all the stuff that’s on the FAA test. It’s a lot of information and it finds every student’s weakness. A student who is good with maps might have an easy time with the aviation sectional maps which are very tangible but struggle mightily with a conceptual issue like controlled airspace. Likewise, a student who is a solid conceptual learner can easily learn airspace but be terrible on weather. Speaking of weather, one of the lessons I learned is that the students blow it off because “It’s middle school earth science.” My midterm, which approximates the FAA exam, had a 31 percent correct-answer rate on weather questions.

    Students had a lot of problems on runway directions/compass things and a surprising amount of trouble initially understanding how to determine latitude and longitude of an area on the map. I took up almost a full 90-minute review session just on these two topics.
  3. We can never teach them everything they need to know for the exam – or to be safe pilots. It’s that simple. There’s too much information. All we can do is hit the highlights, explain the trouble areas and push students into the PHAK for the rest. Getting the 107 certification is not a guarantee and the student has to want it. It’s not that different from any other class. But as educators we need to stress that it’s not an exam that can be crammed for if a student is new to the subject. The subject matter, and the FAA test, are a perfect example of the old maxim that “What you learn is what you remember after you forget what you memorized.” And once you get out into the field is when you really get an education once, as a friend says, the drone eats its first tree.
  4. Students need stick time to get good at flying. And the flying exercises need to be practical. Each of our students ended up with 20-30 minutes of in-the-air time every other week. I don’t think that was enough. It was a function of staffing and scheduling. I’m thinking that an investment in simulator software and controls might be a way to counter this.

    The in-person practice exercises need to be practical. We initially started out with  right-angle moves (launch straight up, stop, go 30 feet forward, stop, yaw right, go 30 feet forward, stop, descend 5 feet, etc...). Great for the low-confidence students, but our better drone handlers quickly got bored. We moved to more dynamic exercises like figure 8s and other movements that combined pitch, roll and yaw, but I wish that we had planned out exercises that had a mission to them. For instance, placing a hay bale in the middle of the flight area and tasking the student to record 360 degrees around the hay bale while maintaining a constant altitude and angle of bank. Or having one student walk a straight line while the pilot matches the walking speed while changing altitude but maintaining a steady bearing to the walking student. Both of those are real-world exercises – but they still are at a simple enough level that low-time pilots can handle them.
  5. Applied learning makes for the best learning. My classes were two hours, once a week. We spent roughly 1:20 in the lecture phase and the last 40 minutes working in small groups on problems. Students did the best when solving word problems. I would get zombie responses if I threw a portion of the aviation sectional map up on screen and asked “What class of airspace is KJEF?” But there was much more interest and effort  if I threw the same graphic up and posed the question as “There’s been a car accident over here and your news director wants you to fly the drone for an overhead video. Can you fly in this airspace or not?”

    Related: The two-hour class was a mistake. I should have gone for two 50-minute periods each week and had quizzes in the second class period that reinforced the lessons from the first class.
  6. We need to teach multi-tiered thinking. That’s both what the FAA tests on and how the real world works. It’s not enough to show students a projected weather report and say “Should you fly at 6 a.m., tomorrow?” We need to ask them to solve several problems at once and articulate the reasons why it is or isn’t and force the specifics: I shouldn’t fly on the Missouri River south of Fort Leavenworth tomorrow morning because the visibility will be marginal and the wind is blowing from the south which means that airplanes will taking off to the south and they might not be able to see me in time.

    Along those same lines, we need to teach judgment. Today’s students, for better or worse, want black-and-white answers in a teaching situation. And the truth is that if a person is taught right, they won’t make a bad decision in a clear situation. But it’s those times that are closer to the edge where pilots get into trouble. The gray areas are where we succeed and where we fail. And they’re not coincidentally where people get hurt. 

Judd Slivka  
Director — Aerial Journalism


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