Expert Interview Series: Gearóid Ó Briain of iFlyTechnology on What Every Drone Pilot Should Know

Drone insurance

Gearóid Ó Briain is an entrepreneur, military flight instructor, and civilian drone flight examiner. He has trained the majority of Ireland’s commercial drone pilots and has a love for all things drones. He is the Managing Director of iFlyTechnology.

How did you first get started as a drone operator, personally?

My close friend, Oisín McGrath suggested we buy a DJI Phantom 1 and set up as a commercial operation. This was before people knew what drones were and it seemed that the aerial photography business would be easily disrupted by this technology.

What did you first notice about drones that made you think it was going to catch on, and not just be some hobby or fad?

On my first flight, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to fly. It completely blew my mind how ‘plug and play’ the whole system was. This was early days, and the craft have advanced greatly since then, but I knew almost instantly that these machines were a game-changer.

iFlyTechnology offers a complete RPAS Theoretical Knowledge Course. What are some of the basics, or most important points you touch on, in that course?

The issue with drones is that the ‘drone community’ generally don’t have an aviation background, which is stricken with a different mindset, huge regulation and it’s own language. Integrating with the aviation environment safely is a difficult task and drone pilots’ biggest handicap is they ‘don’t know what they don’t know’. Our course has two objectives. The first is to teach the essentials such as Air Law, Airspace awareness, and basic operating principles. The second is to provide a roadmap for future learning by providing the basics in subjects such as principles of flight, meteorology, and risk management, among others.

Several members of iFlyTechnology have military flying backgrounds. How does that translate to your civilian clients? What are the advantages?

All of our instructors have qualifications as military flight instructors. They have excellent presentation skills and attention to detail which we rate very highly. My primary focus is the quality of the content being delivered. All of our instructors have spent hundred’s of hours lecturing incredibly bright and enthusiastic students in the military, a tough audience! This leads to a standard of lecturer which is dynamic and precise. The drone industry is changing every day, and our course is short, so these are two of the most important traits which we value in our instructors.

Drone pilot certification programs are becoming increasingly prevalent. Why are so many people looking to get licensed as drone operators?

People used to train because they had to. The industry is maturing and people are realising that the time has come to ‘read the manual’ and get some training, as there are too many cases of people accidently breaking the law or destroying their equipment because of innocent ignorance. We meet a lot of people who aren’t legally required to train or get tested because of the nature of their operations, but they choose to as they see the value. The numbers flying have also increased dramatically. The market hasn’t saturated yet and people are innovating in really exciting ways. I believe we are still only at the start of this thing.

What are some of the most challenging techniques to learn, for civilians who’ve never piloted anything before?

Flying out of standard orientation (when the drone is facing the same direction as the pilot) can be tricky and doesn’t come naturally. Combined with flying without GPS this results in a large percentage of crashes. To augment this, when the drone’s range increases it can be very difficult to see which way the craft is orientated. No motor skill is required to ‘operate’ a drone, but real skill must be acquired to correctly ‘pilot’ one – there is a big difference. Another big challenge is one unrelated to pilot skill. Countless accidents in manned aviation have led to a highly regulated environment which these ‘toys’ now have to operate in. People find it hard to accept the bureaucracy that exists which I can sympathize with, but having personally had a near-miss with a drone whilst flying I understand where the National Aviation Authorities are coming from, to some degree.

How much of an understanding of things like physics and aerodynamics does a drone operator need to understand, to fly effectively?

Aircraft principles of flight (POF) is a complicated subject, and to expect an understanding to the level that a commercial manned aviation pilot achieves is unrealistic. We include 1.5 hrs of an overview on our course but in our ’emergencies’ lecture we focus more on what to do when something goes wrong. Interestingly, the POF lecture tends to be a big favourite with people, credit to our lecturer, Odhrán, he could make any subject exciting.

What are some of the common backgrounds of your clients? Do you get a lot of hobbyists, or is it people looking to pilot drones professionally?

It started with a lot of people who weren’t sure why they were buying drones, but they planned to try their hands at all things unmanned aviation. Now we find that people training are very specialised. We get well-known photographers, videographers, media producers, geo-spatial surveyors, and we have trained the civil services such as Civil Defence, Fire Brigades, Defence Forces, and City Councils. It generally is a very diverse group of interesting and enthusiastic individuals.

RPAS theoretical knowledge is required to operate drones in Irish airspace. Why is this a mandatory requirement?

In fact, since December 2015 it is only a requirement for certain airspaces and privileges. The problem is that you would need a pilot’s licence to understand where you can and can’t fly! To fly in controlled airspace it is a requirement to obtain a certificate. The reason is that the risk is too high to manned aviation. In Ireland, we have had multiple near-misses. Unfortunately, it will take a strike before this topic is given due attention.

What are some fields that you predict drones are going to – pardon the pun – take off in?

Package delivery is coming. Warehouse inventory management is also a sure bet, but they are both industrial examples. I would predict that in 10 years every household in the developed world will have a personal drone which carries out a multitude of activities, walk the dog, collect your keys etc. This may seem bizarre but the iPhone is 10 years old and the idea of a personal computer in your pocket was a pipe-dream once too.

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