The secret world of drones: how pilots learn to fly them
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07/17/14 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday | Listen to this entire show:
Tags: drones, UAV, unmanned aerial vehicles, surveillance, military

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Special Operations Forces demonstrated tactical training while industries showcased the tools they use inside the Tampa Convention Center


photo by Janelle Irwin


Whether they’re used for dropping bombs, spying on suspected criminals or deliver packages, drones are a controversial topic. So, who flies them? Mike Sobkowski is the director of training and simulation for Corsair engineering. He says just about anyone can learn and a growing number of universities are offering classes. Sobkowski gave WMNF a behind-the-scenes look at the secret world of flying drones.

“What’s lift? What’s drag? What’s weight? What’s thrust? And then from there, to teach somebody the principles of flight – not necessarily to be an airplane pilot – but to fly a UAV kind of like a video game almost – somewhat detached.”

Sobkowski’s company manned a booth at a military convention in downtown Tampa in May. Hundreds of companies selling military, police and tactical gear lined the convention center and only those credentialed could attend. There were at least two other drone companies. Some booths were manned by beefy men in suits – others by slender women in pencil skirts and heels. Security was tight around the convention that had missiles on display. At Corsair’s tent, a man interrupted WMNF’s interview by pushing a camera away.

“No cameras.”

That was the level of secrecy surrounding the drone simulator exhibit. The did allow us to continue after the interruption. There were two stations powered by one computer. It looks kind of like a game of Space Invaders where a player controls a little space ship with a joy stick and a couple of buttons.

“So, that’s the actual stick and throttle to fly the UAV around in the sky.”

The drone pilot’s space looks kind of like a 1980’s-style arcade game without the music. Sobkowski’s drones don’t shoot things, but the simulators do teach how to use a camera. In the demo the UAV was simulating surveillance over a neighborhood at night.

“It’s an infrared camera on this system. So, even though we’re at night, you can take a picture of what you’re looking for in the infrared spectrum.”



Real surveillance drones could have a variety of spying potential. How much they see depends on how well-equipped they are. So basically, whatever cameras are available on the market could theoretically be mounted on a UAV.

“Zoom in, zoom out. If it was daytime you could go to a TV camera which shows colors. At night time you’re limited to, basically, gray scale.”

Uses for UAVs range from agriculture, police, border patrol – it’s even been suggested that drones could deliver packages to doorsteps. But no matter what they’re used for, someone has to fly them. Whoever does will sit behind a desk staring at a screen with coordinates and a slew of other numbers.

“As you go through the 360° in a compass, that tells you what you’re magnetic heading is. The pitch ladder tells you, basically, where you’re going up or down. So, if that little circle with the two crosses in it – that’s called a velocity vector – that tells you where the airplane is going. If it’s above that waterline, if it’s positive, it’s going up. If it’s below, it’s going down.”

Even though these pilots won’t be able to translate drone-flying skills to a real aircraft, Sobkowski says the look and feel of the control panel isn’t all that different.

“That display is very similar to a lot of the displays that you would see in aviation – very similar to a heads up display.”

The simulator at the Special Operations Forces Industries Convention was geared only for surveillance, but the company also offers training and simulation on weaponized drones. Their website has animated visuals of unmanned aircraft carrying large missiles.

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