From steelworks to skies: how Lee Bullock’s making the most of the drone boom

When Lee Bullock was made redundant from his job at a steel plant, he decided to build a career in one of the UK’s most exciting and fast-growing sectors – drone piloting.

Taking control

For Lee Bullock, founder of Middlesbrough-based drone company Aerial Aspect, learning to fly a drone was pretty simple compared to the skills he needed for his hobby – flying model helicopters. “Now, those are tricky,” he says. “So when I decided to learn to fly a drone, I just made sure the controls were configured the way I liked them, and I was off.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to flying drones than that – you need to be fully trained and accredited, for a start. Lee is one of the 2,400 drone pilots in the UK who hold a permit from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is legally required for everyone who wants to make a living flying drones. And while most drone pilots operate in the areas of film and photography, Lee has bigger ambitions. He’s just completed a course in specialised drone software Pix4D with Coptrz, the world’s only personal training and development drone company. This drone mapping software uses images filmed by the drone to create everything from maps to surveys.

“Using this software, drones can be used in sectors ranging from agriculture to mining,” says Lee. “It’s a great way to survey land – surveyors no longer need to be out in the field. It saves a huge amount of time and money and is much better in terms of safety, as well – you don’t need to have a guy on a rope to look at the structure of a chimney stack, for example. Of course, you still need those surveyors – but they’re looking through a screen rather than having to be up there, so it’s much better in terms of health and safety.”

Making a new start

Drone pilot is Lee’s second career. His background is in steelmaking and chemistry. He was process controller at the SSI Redcar steel plant, which had the biggest blast furnace in Europe before it was shut down in 2015, following huge falls in the price of steel. When SSI went into liquidation, Lee found himself out of a job. And with some important decisions to make.

“I’d already developed an interest in film editing and I’d been flying model helicopters for years, so I decided to put the two things together,” he says. “Luckily, the government provided funding to help people who lost their jobs at Redcar get back into work. I put together a business plan and was lucky enough to get some of that funding to set up and buy the equipment I needed.

Taking advantage of industry potential

Originally, Lee planned to specialise in aerial film and photography, and his first assignments were creating films for local businesses. But he soon realised the huge potential drones have for changing the way industry works. “The opportunities are massive,” he says. “So now we’re moving towards those. We want to work with the best companies out there. We believe that once industry realises how much time and money we can save, we’ll see a huge boom and a need for skilled drone pilots. We’re working very hard to raise awareness of what drone pilots can bring to industry. And where one goes, the others tend to follow.”

Training is another aspect of Lee’s business: he’s now a flight assessor for Coptrz, helping to ensure that new pilots are safe to fly and hopes to soon train to be able to deliver the courses that enable pilots to be accredited by the CAA. “Good training is absolutely vital,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges we face is educating the public and businesses that you should only hire someone who is fully trained and has the right permits – not your mate who got a drone for Christmas!”

Opportunity knocks

His advice for someone thinking about getting into the industry is simple: “Don’t be afraid to ask – the worst that anyone can say is No. I’ve had a huge amount of help from companies like Coptrz. You’d be surprised at what happens when you ask! And do your research. Make sure that the training provider you have is the absolute best. It’s estimated that in 2025, the UK drone industry will be worth £4bn. There’s an incredible opportunity here.”

Lee’s tips and take-outs

  • Professionalism and legality in the drone pilot world is all. There are a lot of cowboys out there, so stand out from the crowd by ensuing you have the right accreditation.
  • There’s a lot of help available when starting a new business, from government grants to industry insiders who want to share their skills.
  • Don’t be afraid to take advantage of all the support you can get.
  • Look for areas where drones are being under-used – that’s where the business potential lies.
  • Stay ahead of the curve with regular training in new software packages to develop your skills and increase your business’s reach.
  • Be ready to educate businesses about what drones can do for them, and how they can save money and time.

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