Why good piloting skills are critical — even as drones get smarter

Drones are by definition, fully autonomous. Sure, not all the toy model aircraft marketed as ‘drones’ are truly autonomous, but the top-of–the-line industrial models surely are. So if drones are smart enough to fly themselves, then why do good piloting skills matter?

It turns out that good piloting skills don’t just matter, but they are critical especially for flying drones in high stakes situations, such as military and industrial applications.

A key reason why good piloting skills matter has to do not just with the technology powering your own aircraft, but how it interfaces with other technology nearby — most notably drone GPS jammers.

Many drones rely on GPS for stabilization, navigation, tracking and general flight operations. But whether the GPS signal goes down because you’re flying in a challenging environment such as a remote area (as you might experience with your cell phone when camping or at a crowded stadium), or if the GPS signal goes down because another opposing party intentionally jammed it, then you need to be able to fly sans GPS. 

There are companies like InfiDome and Honeywell that build technology that counters GPS jammers. Some drone companies are taking on the task of protecting their vehicles from drone jamming themselves. For example, the Autel EVO Max 4T uses advanced flight control modules and algorithms specially designed to counter RFI, EMI, and GPS spoofing.

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The Autel EVO Max 4T drone. Photo courtesy of Autel.

But perhaps a better solution is just having ultra-skilled pilots who can fly drones without GPS (and who know how to find it again).

“When you get hit by GPS jamming, you have to go into manual mode,” said Red Cat CEO Jeff Thompson at the Canaccord Genuity 43rd Annual Growth Conference this summer.

Red Cat  is an American drone giant that builds drones primarily for military use cases, such as the $15,000 Teal 2 and $14,800 Teal Golden Eagle drones.

“We don’t care if there’s GPS because we turned it off,” said Thompson. “We have to train pilots to have those tactics.”

Red Cat trains pilots to develop their flying skills, which includes tactics to engage in when encountering drone hammers. That might be flying outside of the ‘bubble’ of drone jammers.

“Jamming can’t be everywhere all the time, because it needs a lot of power to do that,” Thompson said. “When you get hit with a GPS jammer, go to manual mode and fly 400 feet up or 400 feet to the left and find the edge of the bubble.”

But Thompson said most pilots don’t currently have those skills.

“Most drone pilots came into it as, say, a realtor,” he said.

But there is a segment of the drone industry that does have some seriously talented drone pilots — and that’s drone racing.

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Kang Chang-hyeon (R), a teenaged drone-racing champion pilots his aircraft during a drone-racing league round in South Korea in 2021. (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

“The company we bought, Teal drones, was founded by a racing pilot,” Thompson said.

That founder is George Matus, and he initially set out to build a drone that could fly up to 85 mph. Teal was acquired by Red Cat in 2021, and around that time pivoted from being a consumer-friendly drone company focused on drone racing to one building drones for defense.

But the way you fly racing drones is not unlike the way you might fly industrial and military drones — at least in some ways.

“In racing drones, you don’t have any GPS assistance or hover assistance,” Thompson said. “You’re flying it like you’re a jet pilot.

In fact, having strong drone piloting skills are so critical for military applications that the U.S. Air Force has made seeking out the world’s top recruiting pilots a significant part of its recruiting strategy.

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United States Air Force Senior Airman William Swain operates a sensor control station for an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission in 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The United States Air Force (USAF) has held a seven-year long partnership with the Drone Racing League (DRL), which is an e-sports group that hosts massive competitions to name the world’s best drone pilot. The USAF’s logic in partnering with DRL has been to recruit the next generation of USAF personnel, and this year the USAF/DRL partnership expanded to include an actual pilot endorsement.

“The league engages a coveted audience of young, high-energy Tech-Setters who have a passion for flight, innovation and technology,” said U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Christopher Amrhein in a prepared statement surrounding the news. “They are future U.S. Air Force recruits and airmen, and a core reason why we continue to renew our partnership with DRL year after year.”

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