How To Become A Drone Pilot.
Originally published in 2015 this article has had over 12,000 views and is re-published here in full.
So you want to be a drone pilot?
So you have discovered ‘drones’! You might be running an existing business, or looking to start a fresh having discovered what these fantastic pieces of equipment can do. What are the markets, possibilities and returns on investment you ask yourself? Well, in this brief post I will look to give you a balanced overview on the current U.K. market.
What is a drone?
ROAVR started around three years ago when we used the terms UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and RPAS or remotely piloted aerial systems. Now, with the vast media interest, most RPAS operators in the U.K. have decided to use the term drone. No client phones you and asks for a UAV these days! Let’s go with the flow and from now on I’ll use the term drone.
A drone is either a multi-rotor or a fixed wing aircraft. A fixed wing drone looks like a model aircraft but is packed with sensors to enable it to fly autonomously. Fixed wings are used mainly for survey, mapping and security.
Multi-rotor drones are by far the most popular platform flown commercial in the U.K. due to their ability to land and take of vertically (VTOL). These drones can carry a wide variety of sensors making them incredibly versatile but because they are not aerodynamic, or particularly efficient, flight times range from 6-25 minutes.
Notice I have decided to talk about markets before equipment! One of the biggest pitfalls made is the purchase of a drone before taking advice or doing some market research. An average purchase for instance would be the popular DJI Phantom 3 Professional or Phantom 4 quadcopter.
These little quads are extremely capable BUT have only a single fixed sensor limiting your markets from day 1. It is more than capable of low end video work, 3D modelling and some surveying but the still imagery is just not of a high enough standard to deliver to clients if photography is your thing.
I pretty much guarantee any PFCO holder (thats permit for commercial operation) in the UK has gone through several iterations of platform before finding something they are happy with.
So lets park platforms for now and look at markets. The main one is media, so that would be everything from breaking news stories to TV productions and corporate video. Production companies were quick to realise the production value of an aerial camera system and the massive cost savings over a traditional helicopter. This sector has driven the industry at one heck of a pace and drone footage can now be spotted on almost every TV channel daily. Countryfile would be a good example, where it seems every shot is from a drone! Did you see our work on Britain’s Whales and Britain’s Sharks? Or maybe the new Columbia advert #TestedTough
Survey and inspection is a developing area. The biggest plus of utilising a drone in this sector is the de-risking of planned operations. Traditionally even the most basic of inspection requires ‘work at height’. By using a drone you can often risk assess out the use of either ladders, scaffold or a mobile elevating work platforms. It is even possible to inspect assets in remote and dangerous locations. Sensor choice, air frame reliability and redundancy with a background in a specialist field is a must here. In addition legislative limitations mean you may well be limited as to which jobs you can even tender for.
We could go on but I said I’d keep this brief! Other emerging markets include agriculture, forestry and environmental monitoring. All with their own challenges and pitfalls. Ultimately it is about data collection, clients do not pay us to fly drones!
So what do you need to do to operate commercially in the U.K.?
Any individual or company wanting to operate unmanned aerial systems in the U.K. for valuable consideration (a well defined term outside the scope of this blog post) needs a permit for commercial operation issued by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
There are four ‘type’ categories in the U.K.: Sub 7kg multi-rotor; >7kg-20kg multi-rotor; Sub 7kg fixed wing and >7kg-20kg fixed wing. The main difference is that with aircraft greater than 7kgs you need ATC permission to fly in many areas. Flying in London for example is virtually impossible and you have to remain 150m> away from ‘congested areas’ limiting your +7kg operations to pretty much open countryside.
With a sub 7kg platform you can operate within congested areas, don’t require ATC permission (although it is considered best practise to inform them if your within 20nm of an aerodrome) and you can operate up to 50m from people, property and structures that are not under your control but not safely overfly at any height.
With this in mind you can see that the most popular airframes are sub 7kgs maximum take off weight which includes the payload and batteries. A popular choice is the DJI Inspire 1 Pro which has a range of payload possibilities.
Once operational a standard PFCO allows you to fly up to 400 feet above ground level (AGL) and up to 500m visual line of sight (VLOS) horizontally. Now going back to that small DJI Phantom quadcopter, to remain within the law you need to be able to see the aircraft in order to monitor its progress and avoid any other airspace hazards. So realistically 150-200m would be your limit.
There is a mechanism for operating outside a standard permission and this is called a UAS-OSC or Unmanned Aircraft System - Operational Safety Case. This is an annual permission based on a single airframe and you can read our blog post on that HERE.
Still with me? To get your PFCO you will need to attend a ground school run by a CAA approved National Qualified Entity (NQE). There are approximately 16 NQE's in the UK now so choice is wide. Choose the NQE that best serves your aspirations. This should not be a cost based decision! Required investment in this industry is intense so do not skimp on training.
Once you have attended your ground school you will also have to take a flight skills assessment for your chosen ‘type’. Once these sections are passed an operational manual for your business is constructed based on a CAA template. This sets out how your company will operate drones commercially with a robust commitment to safety. This is all then submitted to the CAA with a recommendation for the issue of a permit for commercial operation from your NQE. The process can take up to 6-months to complete depending on your commitment level.
Once qualified and holding your PFCO you will have to renew annually which is not to stressful and can be done direct to the CAA or with assistance from an NQE.
Additionally we always recommend getting involved with the industry trade association ARPAS-UK, the supportive environment between members is invaluable.
At ROAVR we have been consulting on RPAS operations worldwide for a number of years now.