How Do You Log Your Drone Flights?

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter at @jwce21

6/10/2016

From my very first flight as a 10-year-old, through my years flying helicopters in the U.S. Army, and then as a Life Flight pilot based at the Eugene Fire Department, I have logged each and every one of my flights.

To this day, when I take my family or one of my Skyward colleagues for a flight, it gets logged.

And when I, or any of the Skyward team, flies drones, we log those flights too.

For us, drones are just another type of aircraft and the people who fly them are another type of pilot. And for all pilots, flight logging is essential.

Why Pilots Log Flights

Copy of Cook InletFlight hours are the primary benchmark of a pilot’s experience and professionalism. They also show how familiar a pilot is with a certain model of aircraft.

For example, I’ve logged 2900 hours in helicopters and 368 hours in airplanes. For many of the jobs I’ve held as a professional helicopter pilot, employers have asked me to tally up hours from my logbook for things like time spent flying under night vision goggles or in the weather or mountains.

And of course, I can break down these experiences to the specific types of aircraft I was flying under each of these categories.

If you’re a professional pilot, logging flights is your path to promotion. Your flight hours tell others whether you have in-depth experience or if you’re still learning. If you fly for fun, flight hours are a totem of the classic “pilot swagger” and provide benchmarks to strive for. For example, to earn a private pilot’s license in the U.S., you must have at least 40 flight hours.

Now, drone service providers are seeing that logged flight hours translate to jobs: The more hours you can prove that you’ve flown, the more lucrative jobs are available to you.

Flight logs aren’t just about gaining customers and bragging rights though—they’re also about the law.

In most jurisdictions, flight logs are a legal requirement, even for recreational pilots. Regulators can and do request pilots’ flight logs to verify that the pilot is or was qualified and current to fly the flight.

If you don’t care about bragging, getting promoted, or following the law, you probably care about your aircraft. Flight logs provide a record to help ensure the health and maintenance of your equipment: the drones themselves, as well as batteries, payloads, and other parts that may require time tracking. After so many flight hours, blades become worn out and need to be replaced. Batteries must be upgraded after so many life cycles and eventually replaced.

Logging Drone Flights

We’ve been keeping aviation logs since the Wright Brothers first took flight at Kittyhawk and recorded every iteration in a journal. A century ago, pilots logged their flights the way most people kept records: with paper and a pencil.

From my conversations with those who fly drones recreationally and professionally, I’ve learned that today’s pilots are logging their flights in all kinds of ways.

1. Paper & pencil
An oldy but a goody, the paper flight log and pencil can go anywhere, don’t require electricity or an Internet connection, and there’s no learning curve. On the downside, you can’t easily share your flight log with remote colleagues or customers. And you can’t back it up without manually reentering the data. If you have multiple pilots keeping multiple records, it can be painful to combine multiple paper flight logs in order to see the totality of your drone flight operations.

2. One or many spreadsheets
A surprising number of people get excited by spreadsheets. I’m not one of them, so I’ve been surprised to learn how many people use this option. If you’re a single pilot, it’s pretty straightforward: Define your fields and log your information. This is easy and inexpensive, and you have complete control over the information you track.

But where it all falls apart (at least for me) is when you have multiple pilots logging flights on separate spreadsheets, and then periodically merging the data into the “master” spreadsheet. Talk about a version control nightmare.

As a person who runs a business, this gives me serious data anxiety. I would be constantly worried that my data was out of date and that people were logging flights in different ways.

3. Ground control stations
Most drones maintain flight logs in ground control stations—super cool! Ground control stations log drone flights automatically, which is great, because that means you don’t have to remember to do it. For recreational pilots, this is the perfect type of drone flight log. And for commercial drone operators who use a single drone, it’s still an okay solution.

But if you have even two drones with two ground control stations, you no longer have a single authoritative drone flight log for your business. Instead, you have two or more systems with different data that is possibly stored in different ways.

4. Web apps
When it comes to drone flight logging, web apps have a lot of advantages. You can maintain a single, authoritative system of record no matter how many aircraft and pilots you have. This makes it much easier to maintain regulatory compliance—and to look at the metrics you need to run your business well.

There are a few different flight logging apps out there, and it’s one of Skyward’s core features.

Our focus has always been on planning and logging safe, efficient flight ops. But many of our customers have told us that they want a fast, easy way to log a flight, even if they didn’t plan it in advance.

So with our latest release, we streamlined the process of flight logging by adding a Log button to our customers’ dashboards. Done!

If you have a free Basic Skyward account, you now have a badge that tracks all your aggregated flight hours. This is especially useful for freelancers and contractors who may be flying for multiple companies. The Skyward badge records all the flights you log in Skyward, whether for fun or work. For our paid subscribers, we’ve given you a badge that aggregates the flight hours across all the pilots in your organization. These badges live on your dashboard and you can easily embed them on your own websites to advertise your experience to prospective customers . To grab the code, just click the badge on your dashboard.

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You can also import flight logs from any DJI ground control station, which means you can maintain your authoritative system of record without re-entering data. We’ll be adding this functionality for other manufacturers in future releases.

Maintaining compliance is essential no matter what your business is, but at the end of the day, you want to obtain real value and insights from the systems you use. Our customers configure Skyward to track the information that’s meaningful to them. So rather than being a simple flight planning and logging tool, Skyward is a way to manage your business.

Our customers have configured Skyward to track key business metrics, such as:

  • How long did the entire operation take?
  • How much time did I spend actually flying?
  • How much did I charge for the operation?
  • When was this UAV’s firmware last updated?
  • How old is this battery?

Rather than simply following the law, tracking these metrics means you’ll be able to adjust your course as needed and chart your business to success.

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*Cover image by Pete Markham