Getting started as a commercial drone operator

As the drone industry continues to expand at a rapid rate, it’s no surprise to see the number of commercial opportunities increase as well. This could be from drone enthusiasts, such as aerial photographers looking to make money from their flying skills, or for existing businesses, such as surveying and inspection teams looking to train their staff (or hire pilots) in order to expand or streamline their operations.

However, you can’t just pick up DJI’s latest product and head off to work; there are a few steps you’ll need to follow. Initially this is on a legal level as you can’t operate commercially without a qualification, and then ultimately it’s about helping you refine and define your skillset to stand out from the crowd. Even a relative newcomer can benefit from getting qualified as companies in a wealth of industries look to adopt UAV technology to their workforce, whether you’re looking to operate as employee or perhaps setting up your own business offering all manner of aerial services.

The legally-required first step is what’s known as the Permission for Commercial Operations, or a PfCO. The clue is very much in the name and if you want to operate drones for a living in the UK then this is an absolute must. There are variations in most other countries (but not all) and while the PfCO doesn’t immediately allow you to legally operate abroad, it will certainly help with your application to a foreign country’s local aviation authority as proof of your aerial competency.

It’s also worth noting that the PfCO applies to craft under 20kg (including all required equipment except for fuel), and if you’re looking to fly larger models then these are subject to the UK’s wider aviation regulations and require specific authorisations not covered here.

 

What Are ‘Commercial Operations’?

The CAA has a more detailed breakdown of its description but essentially ‘commercial operations’ boils down to using a small unmanned aircraft “in return for remuneration or other valuable consideration”. So if you’re being paid to fly, or if job you’re being paid for involves flying, then you need a PfCO. If you’re taking aerial photographs for your own pleasure then that’s fine – but if you start selling those photos then you’d need a PfCO. Likewise, if you’re an estate agent and you just want to use a friend’s drone to get some nice aerial shots of your newest property, then you’d still need to be qualified as you are looking to make money from those flights.

There are some grey areas, and some examples of where the CAA is happy for people to operate without the qualification. If those aforementioned aerial photographers are making money from advertising on their website displaying those shots (or bloggers posting drone videos on YouTube etc.), then that’s generally accepted. Research teams using drones for their studies are largely safe and if you’re working strictly indoors, and with no direct access to the outside world where the CAA regulations for all pilots apply, then you might still be free to operate without a PfCO.

However, in most of these examples having some kind of formal training is still to be advised to ensure you’re comfortable, confident and ultimately safe in your work. But if you are looking at an opportunity to make money directly as a result, or as a consequence, of your drone operations, then you need to get a PfCO. Besides, anyone looking to hire a drone operator should only be looking for qualified pilots.

 

Getting Qualified

Although it is the CAA who approves and issues the Permissions, it doesn’t deliver the required training courses itself. Those are handled by National Qualified Entities (NQEs), with Coptrz on the CAA’s list of approved ‘remote pilot assessment organisations’, and are typically 2-4 days in length. Online courses are available but most prefer the more intense and compact on-site courses, with most companies taking them across the country so you can find one close to home (Coptrz offers 12 locations in the UK).

In short, these cover both the theory and the practical side of responsibly operating a drone. The actual flying time is relatively short compared the classroom work, but the latter covers a wealth of valuable training including air safety, law, operating procedures and even meteorology and more. Perhaps most important is the Operations Manual which will prove to be a very necessary and very important tool for all of your pre-flight planning and location surveys – and ultimately shapes what you would likely look to provide to a site manager or local authority before operating on their land.

Assuming you’re successful on the course, you are then directed to the CAA where an initial application fee is required (currently at £250), with an annual renewal cost to follow (currently £190), and after a short delay you’ll have yourself a CAA-approved Permission for Commercial Operations and be ready to start making some money! But that doesn’t mean your aerial education has to stop there…

Expanding Your Knowledge

Although having a PfCO is a necessary tool for any commercial operator, the fact that every pilot has to have one means that it alone doesn’t make you stand out from the crowd. Further qualifications and more specialised training can go a long way to making you a far more accomplished and efficient operator, as well as helping to establish people to create niche markets or for companies to create a standardised skillsets for all of its pilots.

Here at Coptrz, for example, we offer further OFQUAL (Office of Qualifications and Examinations) accreditations. Anyone completing our PfCO course can apply for the CAA-approved OFQUAL Level 4 accreditation. Sitting somewhere between an A-Level and degree standard, this acts as an additional badge of honour to let would-be customers know that you’re serious about what you do and that they can trust their business requirements with you (and it counts as an exemption from foundations modules of later levels, possibly saving you time and money down the road).

We also offer OFQUAL Level 5 courses geared towards chief pilots who might also be managing a wider team or network of operators (comparable to an HND qualification or second year of a Batchelor’s degree). This provides further training, either on-site or remotely, in key areas that enhances and builds upon the foundations laid by the PfCO – so you’ll become more accomplished with topics including all aspects of flight theory, airspace management, risk awareness and management, and maintaining all the relevant logs and reports. It also provides the first steps towards specialising your skillsets for specific industry application in fields such as thermography, surveying and inspections.

Finding Your Market

Those three industry applications are prime examples of areas where a little specialist knowledge can go a long way. Not only will having formal training in thermography make you more appealing to a client who runs a solar farm, for example, but that same training will enable you to become better and more efficient at running your operations and then maximising the data at your disposal.

In our recent article on the Parrot Anafi Thermal we pointed how it made it easy to get into aerial thermography – but there’s some difference between having access to such opportunities and actually being good at delivering upon them and getting that specialist training can make a huge impact on both your work and your commercial appeal. As much as being able to illustrate some smooth flying skills is a great tool to have, being able to show a thorough understanding of processing and analysing the results of those flights can be even more important.

Similarly with so many aerial photographers and videographers around, besides your portfolio, there’s not a lot to differentiate one from another – and so finding a hook or perhaps a niche market can certainly help to make you stand out. This could involve training up on specialist software, such as Pix4D, to enhance your potential for aerial photogrammetry or mapping, or seeking further permissions to operate in places where other pilots might not be able to reach.

Additional exemptions can be applied for with the CAA for flying above the 400ft barrier, for example, and within the 150m restrictions for congested or crowded areas or within 50m of people or property. Flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) is a growing market, enabling you to conduct operations that go further than the standard drone regulations would allow. You will need to prove competency in these areas – so the work done on your PfCO course putting together your Operations Manual will continue to bear fruit – but there are plenty of opportunities to be found as a result.

With each step that you are capable of broadening your skillset, so the size of your potential competition narrows. The costs involved with training can seem expensive, or the time and work it takes may seem a bit of a grind, but it might only take one job to follow as a result to make it all more than worthwhile. And so getting your PfCO is just the first step on your path to success. Exactly in what direction that path leads, is entirely up to you… but we’re here to help!


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