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Flying lessons: Learning how to pilot a drone

By Bryony Jones, CNN
  • Drones are used by the military for surveillance and combat missions
  • CNN reporter learned to fly a UAV designed to be as easy to use as a computer game

Paris (CNN) -- Police and military forces are increasingly reliant on unmanned aerial vehicles to do jobs deemed too risky for humans to do in person, with drones regularly used in surveillance and warfare, from Liverpool to Libya.

So just how easy is it to pilot one? CNN got a drone flying lesson to find out.

The makers of one drone recently exhibited at the Paris Air Show claim their UAV is designed to be easier to use than a computer game -- which is just as well but I've never been much good with games either, whether World of Warcraft or Wii.

I am also easily the clumsiest person I know. I can't be trusted near large displays of china and glassware, so putting me in control of an expensive piece of military hardware may turn out to be the most foolhardy move the team at Datron has ever made.

Still, here we are, in a park near the airfield at Le Bourget, near Paris, and I'm about to get my hands on a real life drone.

Wandering around the air show, I've seen UAVs several meters across; huge gray aircraft only distinguishable from regular fighter jets by their lack of windows and the 'no human occupant' warning emblazoned on their paintwork, so I'm not quite sure what to expect.

How easy is it to fly a drone? (No audio)

Thankfully, it turns out the drone I am learning on is something a little smaller -- and hopefully less expensive to repair, should I dent it a bit.

Unmanned aircraft such as weather balloons have been around for decades, and surveillance drones have been deployed by police in Britain, and considered by law enforcement agencies elsewhere, but in recent years the use of military drones in combat zones by the United States has sometimes proved controversial.

Last year, there were 118 drone strikes in the al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold of Waziristan, along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan alone, according to a count by the non-partisan New America Foundation think thank.

The attacks have caused consternation and anger in both countries - especially when civilians are killed and injured.

And according to the Pentagon's 30-year procurement plan, figures like those are likely to rise in the coming decades, with the numbers of larger UAVs such as Reapers and Global Hawks set to almost double by 2021.

Of course, no one's letting me near a Predator, so the population of Paris can rest easy.

They are, however, letting me try out the Datron Scout, a camera-equipped micro-UAV made for use in reconnaissance missions.

"It is designed to be very easy to use, and very rapid to deploy," explained Datron program manager Christopher Barter. "The idea is that you can put it together, put it in someone's hands, and they can use it within minutes.

"We want people to be able to focus on the mission, on what is important, on getting their eyes over that hill, and not worry about the technology."

Which is just what I'm doing, trying to calculate whether CNN will let me put a drone on expenses, should this all go horribly wrong, when the tablet PC and stylus used to control the Scout is handed over and I am ordered to make it take-off.

We want people to be able to focus on the mission, on what is important, and not worry about the technology
--Christopher Barter

I may not be much use when it comes to shoot-em-ups, but even I can cope with tapping a green button, which is all it takes to make this particular UAV fly.

With a sound like a swarm of bees it is off, hovering a meter above ground and waiting for further instructions.

Tapping on a slider bar sends the drone 10 meters up, and a quick click on the on-screen map directs it off to explore the park ahead of us.

Lifting the stylus off the screen leaves the drone hovering in wait, where its onboard camera can watch events below, rather than crashing to the ground, as I had feared it might.

Its makers say the Scout is aimed at both military and public safety markets -- police and firefighters have tested it for surveillance operations.

But there are some customers who suggest more unusual uses.

There was the Middle Eastern customer, for example, who wanted to know if he could use it to train his pet falcons.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest the birds might not take too kindly to the idea.

"We did one demonstration in Lagos, Nigeria, in front of an audience of 200 or so cadets, where a huge eagle dive-bombed the scout," says Barter.

"It backed off right at the last second, then circled around and came back for another look. The operator didn't know whether to laugh or cry."

Back in Paris, we manage to upset a magpie, which doesn't take too kindly to our intrusion into its territory, and the park security guards, before bringing the drone back to where it started - thanks to its GPS link -- with a quick tap on the 'home' button.

And then it's time for the bit I had feared most: The landing. It took me months to learn how to park a car, so I was fully expecting to have to hand over to the team for this bit, but it turns out it's just as easy as take-off.

I press the red button, confirm I want the drone to land, and it does just that, fluttering to the ground at our feet - without a scratch, leaving me (and CNN's expenses department too, no doubt) sighing with relief.