Why It Will Inspire a
New Generation of Professionals
Joe Falconer


Joe Falconer is CEO of Aerial Data Systems, an aviation solutions and training company focused on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). As an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)-certified flight instructor and commercial pilot, Falconer is passionate about aviation safety, and that includes ying remote vehicles such as model airplanes and UAVs. Falconer taught the first graduate-level UAV class to GIS students at the University of Denver (DU) this last summer.

Drones or UAVs are gaining more attention and interest, whether used for environmental purposes, or delivery of packages. The problem is that UAVs present a level of unprecedented scale for the use of shared airspace, with people who don’t understand aviation or the operational and legal risks of ying. We spoke with Falconer at the GeCo in the Rockies 2014 conference.

LBX Give us a little background information on UAVs. What are they? Who flies them?

FALCONER This is a good question and one that we covered in the class I taught at DU. What is a UAV? While a UAV is a remotely operated aerial device, there isn’t a clear definition or rather distinction between devices. This is why there is contention between the public and the FAA on the regulation of UAVs. For example, you could consider a small 4 oz. foam airplane with a camera on it a UAV. In archeology, kites with cameras have been used to take pictures of a dig site. That could be considered a UAV, but intuitively we all probably agree it is not.

The real issue is that the laws and regulations have not caught up with the technology. According to the FAA’s Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) CFR 14- Chapter 1-Subchapter A-Part 1- Subpart 1, Aircraft means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air. According to that definition, a lot of things fall within the definition of an aircraft. The same is true with UAVs.


LBX What are the regulations around UAVs?

FALCONER It is legal to commercially fly UAVs but you have to have special permission from the FAA. BP Oil received this permission to fly a UAV over the Arctic and this last summer to fly a fixed wing UAV over land to provide aerial data on one of their pipelines. Recently the FAA gave permission to six film companies out of Hollywood to use their UAVs on a closed movie set. All of these organizations have pilots on staff which probably helped them receive the needed permission from the FAA. So it is legal to fly commercially but there is a lot of red tape to go through and you better be qualified as a pilot.

There are a number of documents that are relevant when it comes to the regulations. Being very familiar with the FARs especially part 91 will help flyers understand the regulation landscape. Also understanding the documents that the Academy of Model Aeronautics has published will provide insight into what the FAA is thinking. We address all of these regulations, airspace, and pertinent information necessary to operate safely and legally within our training packages.

If you are a ‘Public’ entity, police department, fire department, USGS or other government entity, you are legal to fly. But since there is no regulation on the training yet, even if you are legal to fly, you may not be properly trained. The FAA published the UAS (unmanned aerial systems) Integration Roadmap last November. It specifically states in section 3.6 that UAS training standards will mirror manned aircraft training standards to the maximum extent possible, including appropriate security and vetting requirements, and will account for all roles involved in UAS operation. This may include the pilot, required crew members such as visual observers or launch and recovery specialists, instructors, inspectors, maintenance personnel, and air traffic controllers. It’s clear the FAA wants such training and it will follow the structure that is already in place.

LBX Why is UAV training so important?

FALCONER UAVs, like commercial and full-sized aircraft flown by licensed pilots, are flown in shared airspace. That means unqualified people can fly UAVs and risk danger to life and property. We feel safe in the air as passengers and pilots because qualified professionals are flying the planes. Take that away and the airspace becomes dangerous. UAVs are now at price points between $5000-$250,000, which make them available at a new, potentially unmanageable scale if certification is not put in place.

LBX What does training entail? What do UAV pilots need to know that they don’t know today?

FALCONER Every UAV pilot needs to know what a TFR is. A TFR is a temporary flight restriction. If a full-sized aircraft flies in restricted airspace they will be escorted back to ground by the military. I spoke at a UAV conference of UAV “fliers” and asked how many of them knew what a TFR was. I was shocked when 95% of the audience was clueless. And this is on UAVs that are currently “legal” to fly. Imagine the chaos when you include hobbyists and commercial UAVs?

As far as the training goes, Aerial Data Systems walks you through understanding the rules of the air, airspace A-G, weather, aerodynamics, regulations, local laws and much more. We also help you understand how to fix a UAV when you crash. And you will crash; it’s a matter of when. You can find out more at AerialDataSystems.com/training.


LBX  Training is generally viewed as a burden. Why do you think that UAV training will spark a new generation of professionals?

FALCONER UAVs are a data collection platform for imagery about our world, at a macro and micro level. That collection can be for capturing the damage from natural disasters such as flash floods, tornadoes, earthquakes; monitoring crops for agricultural purposes; chasing bad guys for law
enforcement; drone journalism, and so many other applications.

UAVs are at the intersection of unrelated, yet converging industries such as GIS, Aviation, and Gaming. GIS and Aviation are professions with their own set of certifications, professional codes of conduct. Game development may be a career, but it is not a profession. There are no professional codes of conduct for the developers or the players. As these industries converge, a new skill set will be required for a UAV specialist. If we are to usher in a new professional industry, UAVs in business, then we need to be professionals.

There is a lot to know about UAVs: how to fly a mission, post-processing… regardless of what some of the marketing states. “Push the Green Button” does not always ensure a successful mission. And sometimes UAVs crash; what do you do then? Just because I bought a new GPS receiver doesn’t make me a GIS professional. The same is true about buying a UAV; it does not make you a pilot. You need the training to understand the full picture.


LBX How do you envision inspiring this new generation of professionals?

FALCONER We offer a number of theory-based and practical hands-on training. We will help you understand the basics all the way to flying successful missions. Some items we help you understand are as follows:

→ The UAV Ecosystem: How different professions and
hobbyists connect around shared airspace.

→ FAA regulations, ordinances, local laws.

→ Aerodynamics, weather, how to plan a mission, crew
resource management.

→ Field repairs; what do you do when you are on a $20K job
and your wing has a crack at the main spar? We help you
understand the parts and how to deal with the things that
can happen in the field.

→ Who is the UAV Professional? What are the skills required to be
a UAV professional?

→ How GIS professionals integrate UAV data. What are the
requirements for quality data acquisition and what to do with
it once it’s collected.

→ Risks and opportunities associated with UAV data collection.

→ UAV safety, operations, and maintenance.

→ The social, political, environmental, and economic (business)
cases for UAVs (as a data collection and a delivery platform).

LBX What is the most important thing any pilot needs to know?

FALCONER This is a good question. I have thousands of hours flying in the National Airspace System (NAS). I have flown UAVs and full scale aircraft in all types of weather, wind and adverse conditions. I have also taught students how to fly during these times. And the one thing that has saved me from any accident is the ability to make good decisions. But to make those good decisions, you need to be trained and have a broad knowledge base of what you are doing. You need those pockets of knowledge to draw from when you are operating UAVs in the real world. This is achievable by getting the proper training, regardless of what the FAA requires or does not require.

Joe-Falconer_BioPicJoe Falconer is CEO of Aerial Data Systems, a UAV company that focuses on aerial data collection, training, safety and product development. Joe is also an FAA-certified flight instructor with over 20 years experience flying and training pilots, flew for the airlines and now brings his expertise to the UAS industry. His mission is to bring awareness of the National Air Space System to the UAS general public. Joe is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver, teaching the first UAVs and GIS course in Colorado and perhaps the country.