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So You Want to Keep Track of All Your Drone Flights?

This post is the latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series, which profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on using drones, UAVs and remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography, that Kike learns about during his travels.   Since I began to learn about drones and fly, I realized one of my main priorities...

This post is the latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series, which profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on using drones, UAVs and remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography, that Kike learns about during his travels.



Since I began to learn about drones and fly, I realized one of my main priorities was safety: not only for me, but for anyone nearby. No matter if you are a professional drone pilot developing commercial work or an amateur weekend flyer, a logbook is an important element to consider to help maintain a safe environment.

We should keep track of our flights as a basic information recording, by logging the essentials. These include drone platform, location, equipment (or upgrades), and the weather conditions.

“Collecting data about your aircraft system will afford you a better understanding of your equipment and can help you mitigate costly failures,” said SUAS News America’s Desk editor Patrick Egan.

“I truly believe that logging each and every one of your flights is an imperative procedure required of any UAV/UAS pilot,” said DSLRPros Customer Experience Team member Clint Wimmer. “It is important to document the preflight checklist conducted prior to the flight, location of the flight, the battery voltage prior to takeoff (craft battery, controller battery, monitor, etc.), number of GPS satellites acquired prior to takeoff, as well as the time of day and current weather conditions during the time of the flight.  Software parameters and settings that affect the aircraft’s behavior should be noted.  The flight plan and the variety of flight maneuvers should be recorded through a brief explanation and a detailed diagram of the flight.  Finally, the total flight time, battery voltage upon landing, and total distance and maximum altitude of the flight path should be recorded.  If there are any abnormalities or unexpected behaviors during the flight, they too should be well documented and thoroughly analyzed prior to another attempted flight.”

DJI Director of Education Romeo Durscher has been part of some big adventure projects, like ABC’s Good Morning America Live TV broadcast out of the world’s largest cave, Soon Dong in central Vietnam. “I know the importance of not only planning a mission,” said Romeo, “but keeping track of flights, batteries, and camera settings/filters, and lessons learned. It is also very important. Having this data available is not only fun, it can really be very useful in executing a project in the best possible way.”

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Another important task is to manage and keep records of battery life. “We encourage our customers to use the logbooks supplied with our drones. This kind of detailed history can be useful for tracking an aircraft’s condition and performance, and that of its batteries, and ensuring its proper use. This is especially true if a drone is shared between several colleagues,” said Jean-Christophe Zufferey, CEO of mapping drone manufacturer senseFly.

“One of my highest recommendations to pilots is to develop an identification scheme for each and every battery i.e. Battery 1, Battery 2, Battery 3,” said Wimmer. “For anyone with multiple batteries, crafts, or other equipment, we have found that using names has a longer lasting impression in your mind.  If the naming scheme is 80’s movies or comic book heroes for example, it is often much easier to remember that Beetlejuice and Superman are older more problematic batteries than it is to remember that battery 3 and battery 8 are older more problematic batteries.  As your arsenal of equipment builds, the names tend to identify longer in your memory than numbers or letters.  As far as the importance of battery parameters go, every pilot should be able to identify the battery by name or number, identify the date when the battery was received (all batteries have a limited shelf life regardless of usage), identify the number of charging cycles (charge to discharge), and identify how well balanced each cell of the battery is (ideally each of the battery cells should be balanced within 1 millivolt or .01).  These battery parameters should be monitored on a regular basis even when the battery is not in use.  This battery information will help you to evenly cycle though your batteries, preventing stress on 1 or 2 batteries that are used more often than the others.  The information will also help to identify a problematic or potentially unhealthy battery before it becomes dangerous.  Document the battery parameters for each battery in a battery log on a regular basis.”

“All equipment should be checked and verified for proper functionality prior to usage,” said Wimmer.  “The most important equipment to check would include the motors, ESCs, and propellers.  Some systems have moving parts such as landing gear or collapsible GPS mounts.  Be sure that these assemblies are secure and functioning properly prior to flight.  Never fly with any cracked, chipped, warped, or unbalanced propellers.”

“As with every other kind of photography, proper maintenance is crucial for optimizing the life-span and efficiency of hard-earned aerial photograhy gear,” said Infinite Impact photographer Mike Cairns. “Labeling batteries and tracking their usage and health is one crucial step in getting the most out of the expensive, but currently indispensable, lithium polymer batteries that keep us airborne.”

“It is very important to have a flight plan for every flight (absolutely no exceptions).  The path should be clear of any obstructions and should not cross over any power lines or roads that are used for travel.  Always obey your local and federal regulations regarding safe radio controlled flight.  For crafts with GPS and return-to -home/fail-safe capabilities, always choose a good home point (flat level ground, no obstructions within… let’s just say a stone’s throw in any direction).  I could go on and on for the rest of the day, but I think you’re getting the point.  Every pilot must take the responsibility to inspect their flight platform and all associated components prior to flight.  Every part of the inspection as well as the flight plan should be well documented.  The results of the flight are just as important to document since this is the final determination of how wellthe equipment is functioning.”


And when it comes to planning, having a handy logbook or notebook could be extremely useful to fly safely. “Planning a shoot is crucial to proper execution,” said Cairns. Not enough can be said for previsualization, both through tools like Google Earth as well as walking the site on foot, when possible, days before your actual shoot. This lets you subconsciously process possibilities you might not come up with on the fly. By keeping a log of your past adventures (successes and failures), you can draw from lessons learned to push your aerial photography game to the next level.”

“I suggest folks learn about the area where they plan to fly,” said Egan. “It is always a good idea to make sure that you are aware of your surroundings, including other airspace users and folks that may be on the ground. You can learn more about safe operations by visiting the FAA website or visiting your country’s own Civil Aviation Authorities website.”

“I also suggest people use a checklist. Some people think it is over the top, but the checklist works. Some items on the checklist may be platform specific, while others are universal. Making sure the propellers are tight, control switches and levers are all in the right position, and that batteries are fully charged may seem elementary, but we are human. These are simple tasks that will help you have more good days than bad.”

“Keeping a log of flight activities can be very helpful at tracking your experience, and building user confidence with the equipment,” said DJI Global VP of Policy & Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman. “It’s also a lot of fun to watch your experience grow over time. It’s pretty amazing to see how much distance these drones cover even when they are mostly flying around in close proximity to the user.”

“It is important to maintain records mainly for hours of operation, as parts will fail from time to time,” said Troy Built Models President Gene Payson. “If you are flying legally in the USA under a FAA 333 Exemption, part of the requirement includes monthly reporting. The reason for this reporting is to gain knowledge regarding common failure points and time between failures. The FAA is gathering all this data to increase its knowledge and then improve its policies. Pilots should be educating themselves by collecting data on their equipment so that they can be proactive rather than reactive in regards to maintenance.”

The fact that logbooks are not officially required does not mean they do not deeply contribute to safety. Accurate record keeping and planning will allow us to better understand our performance in the air, and it will allow us to monitor and analyze our flights, platforms and batteries. And even if it is not the norm, using the comment section to write how you felt during a particular flight, for example, in windy conditions, will help you better understand yourself as a pilot, and make you a more confident and safe one.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Kike Calvo
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: