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Popularly depicted as the ‘eye in the sky’, the unprecedented growth in commercial acceptance of unmanned aerial vehicles – commonly known as drones – is fuelling an enormous upturn in related careers. Maybe it’s you who should be keeping an eye on them?

What’s involved?

Drones – or, to give them their proper name, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) – are already big business, and set to get bigger. Originally stemming from military applications – you may have even used one yourself as part of your Service role – these days, the use of drones is expanding into many different industries, scientific, commercial and recreational. Already being used in a huge variety of different areas, they have a burgeoning array of applications, in sectors such as aerial filming and photography, agriculture, logistics (e.g. parcel delivery), policing and surveillance, and even drone racing. Despite their origins, military drones are now completely outnumbered by their civilian counterparts, with the latest figures estimating well over a million sold to date worldwide.

It’s an exciting time for the industry and, as companies continue to discover new uses for drones, it is expected that qualified drone operators will soon be in great demand. From UAV pilot to engineer, there are many career paths you could choose to follow. We look at just a few of the most popular here.

Jonathan Nicholson of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the regulator for commercial drones, says: ‘We have now given approval to more than 2,000 organisations to use drones commercially. These include everything from film companies to the emergency services, with activities ranging from digital mapping to wedding videos.’

Drone pilot/operator

If you love to fly quadcopters and other gadgets, or have spent some time working with UAVs during your Service career, you are more than likely to have the skills necessary to become a civilian drone pilot. If it’s a career you’d like to pursue, you can train to become a UAV pilot at a number of approved centres across the UK – check the regularly updated list on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website at to make sure the provider/course you are considering appears there; you will find the list under ‘CAA approved assessment organisations (NQEs)’. As ever more industries begin to realise and exploit the benefits of UAVs the availability of drone training courses is expanding, and you can choose the one you need to suit your available study time and career aspirations.

Package delivery

Amazon had already announced a few years ago that it would be exploring the concept of drone delivery for its packages, and later put out a job ad for a drone pilot. While the listing is, of course, no longer active, the qualifications it asked for might offer you some insight into the skills you’ll need: four-plus years’ experience of drone piloting, with a bonus if you have aeroplane pilot experience too. And Google, under the title Project Wing, aims to start delivering parcels by drone very soon. It says it will deliver parcels to ‘mobile delivery receptacles’, which will effectively be boxes on wheels that can take the package to a ‘secure location’.

Aerial photography and filming 

If you are the visual type, with an eye for detail and enjoy creativity alongside the more techie side of things, then you could make a great aerial photographer or film-maker. Roles are already available in a variety of contexts (see the ‘UAVs in use’ box for some examples) and it’s also the kind of business that would make a great start-up if you have the skills, necessary permissions (see below) and are considering self-employment in the civilian workplace. The benefits of drone photography are becoming better known by the day, so the opportunities are pretty endless and limited only by your own imagination. For example, there are now even companies that specialise in filming golf courses: tee-to-green shots of golf holes that give potential putters a fresh perspective of the challenges they’ll face or courses they might like to play.

A small selection of other examples from the growing list of drone-related job roles can be seen in the accompanying box, ‘UAVs in use’.


Commonly referred to as a drone, a UAV is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. A drone may fly either via remote control by a human operator, or fully or partly on its own, controlled by an onboard computer. Sometimes also referred to as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPASs), small unmanned aircraft (SUA) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from small handheld types up to large aircraft, potentially of a similar size to airliners, although drones weighing more than 20kg need special permission to fly in UK airspace.

UAVs in use

Some typical roles for drones – offering career opportunities for their operators

  • Aerial crop surveys
  • Bird’s eye-view shots for marketing campaigns
  • Commercial and motion picture film-making
  • Coordinating humanitarian aid
  • Crowd monitoring
  • Delivering medical supplies to otherwise inaccessible regions
  • Fire detection and monitoring
  • Inspection of power lines and pipelines
  • Keeping track of construction developments
  • Land survey
  • Landslide measurement
  • Major accident investigation
  • Offshore and onshore inspections
  • Photography to assist planning applications
  • Property marketing
  • Providing graphics for 3D modelling
  • Search and rescue
  • Surveillance

Skill up while serving!

Because drones started life in a military context, there are obvious career opportunities to be had for ex-Forces UAV operators already in possession of the remote piloting skills necessary to make the transition to civilian drone use. You may have used such equipment while in uniform for reconnaissance, to gather battlefield intelligence, in target and decoy work, operational support and of course in combat.

If you already have a pilots’ licence, you may be able to do an abbreviated conversion course, for instance; these usually take one day. So do remember to check with prospective training providers to see whether they can offer you this option.

However, please note that military UAV experience is not automatically recognised by the CAA. It’s still a good idea, though, to keep a detailed record of all flying hours and operational experience, as this may afford you an easier route into the commercial drone industry. Although there’s no doubt that commercial UAV businesses value Service experience, it remains advisable to demonstrate your commitment to the industry by undertaking specific professional development where available.

Get qualified!

CAA rules require all drone pilots who operate commercially to be approved. In 2010 it introduced regulations that require operators of small unmanned aircraft (SUAs, aka UAVs or drones) used for aerial work purposes and those equipped for data acquisition and/or surveillance to obtain permission from the CAA. This is known as the Permission for Commercial Work, i.e. using a UAV for commercial purposes. For the CAA to grant this permission, it requires a pilot to have undergone an assessment for the aircraft they plan to operate, as well as to have achieved a qualification that allows them to pilot a small unmanned aerial vehicle.

So, in order to fly a UAV for commercial reasons, the key requirement is to hold permission from the CAA. (Although you might hear people refer to this as the ‘CAA licence’, it is in fact ‘CAA permission’ and not a licence as such.) In order to gain this, the CAA requires you to complete an operations manual and give evidence of pilot competency, which is divided into three critical elements:

  1. adequate theoretical knowledge/general airmanship
  2. successful completion of a practical flight assessment on the class of UAV that is being applied for
  3. a minimum amount of recent flying experience on the class of UAV that is being applied for; those of you coming from a non-aviation background would, in order to achieve this, need to attend a course run by one of the National Qualified Entities (NQEs) approved by the CAA.

Should you choose to be employed by a current operator who already has a CAA-issued permission, then there is no requirement for you to apply for it yourself, as you can simply be added as an approved pilot to your employer’s permission. Note, though, that you will still need to prove your competency – for example, by holding, say, the Basic National UAS Certificate (see below)



Once you have met all the above requirements you can make an application using form SRG 1320, which you can download from the CAA website here: This should be emailed to:

Allow up to 28 working days for your permission to be processed.


As with any other aircraft, an unmanned vehicle must always be flown in a safe manner, showing respect both to other aircraft in the air as well as to people and properties on the ground. The CAA’s primary aim is to enable the full and safe integration of all UAV operations into the UK’s total aviation system. 

When you fly a drone it is your responsibility to be aware of the rules in place to keep everyone safe. Follow these simple steps to make sure you are flying safely and legally. 

  • Make sure you can see your drone at all times and don’t fly higher than 400 feet.
  • Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields.
  • Use your common sense and fly safely; you could be prosecuted if you don’t. 
  • Drones fitted with cameras must not be flown:
  • within 50 metres of people, vehicles, buildings or structures that are not within the control of the pilot
  • over congested areas or large gatherings such as concerts and sports events.

You can find the CAA’s quick-start safety guide to flying drones for fun at and a video that explains the basic rules is available on the CAA YouTube channel at 



A typical NQE full course involves:

  • pre-entry/online study
  • one to three days of classroom lessons and exercises
  • written theory test
  • flight assessment

On successful completion of the theory element, the pilot will:

  • develop their own operations manual
  • practise aircraft operation/flying skills for the practical flight assessment.

Flight assessments are completed at your own pace and:

  • are usually arranged separately but may be available on the last day of the course
  • have no structured syllabus or sequence of numbered exercises.

Concessions against the theory part of the course are possible if you have:

  • flying experience (including model aircraft)
  • a licence or certificate that allows you to fly in unsegregated airspace (e.g. PPL, glider rating).

See Section 2, Chapter 4, of CAP 722 for full details:


What happens on the training course?

To gain the relevant qualification to fly a drone for commercial purposes, as well as being at least 18 years of age, you will need to attend a training course and, as noted above, it’s vitally important to make sure you use a provider approved by the CAA. Several CAA-approved training providers in the UK offer the RPQ-s (Remote Pilot Qualification – small) or BNUC-S (Basic National UAS Certificate) (see box). The different names for the qualification depend on which provider you use for your training. Courses are available in many locations across the country, and there are different training options depending on your needs.

During the course, your chosen training provider (NQE) will take you through a ‘ground school’ lasting around two days, where the process of writing your ops manual will be discussed in detail. Sometimes this ground school is augmented by computer-based distance learning, and it will probably end with an exam. After that, there’s a flight test, following which the NQE will assess your operations manual. If they are happy with it, they will recommend that the CAA award you your permission. This order of events might differ between NQEs but the principles remain much the same. The NQE will usually help you to develop your operations manual as well as offering advice on completing any additional paperwork needed.

The flight test element of the training is fairly basic and effectively looks at your mission planning, pre-flight inspections, maintaining visual line of sight at all times, performing accurate controlled flight in both GPS and Attitude modes (or equivalent), real-time monitoring of aircraft status, conducting a ‘return to home’ procedure, and finally shutting down the aircraft safely and logging necessary data.

Note that training courses will not necessarily teach you how to fly a UAV, so you will need to clarify whether or not this forms part of a course before you sign up. If it’s not offered and it’s something you need, you will have to find a consultancy service or flight school that offers this training, or you can teach yourself. If you go for the latter option, you will need a large open space and, of course, permission from the landowner. It’s also worth joining the British Model Flying Association (see ‘Key contacts’) to access public liability insurance and information on areas where you can fly.

Once you have your permission, it allows you to fly within the confines of the Air Navigation Order, details of which are outlined on the requirements page of the CAA website:

In most cases, to operate commercially you will need to be able to function in congested areas. However, the CAA wants to see a far greater emphasis on safety than that offered in passing the process outlined above. For this reason, CAA-approved training courses look not just at your improved operational procedures and safety management system, but also in depth at your pilot competence as well as the safety of your aircraft.

Finally, as mentioned above, if you are coming from an aviation background then the process could be a little easier for you as you may not need to do the ground school. Do check with your provider first, though! The flight test and an operations manual will still be required.

How long does training take and how much does it cost?

In terms of time, how long your training takes very much depends on how long it takes you to write up your ops manual and the quality of your input. With this in mind, and to err on the side of caution, it would be sensible to allow a good six months to complete the process. As for cost, NQEs’ fees vary but by the time you have paid for the necessary course(s) and your CAA permission application (see below), this is likely to be in the region of £1,500–£2,000 (not including travel and accommodation costs). You will also need to factor in public liability insurance costs before beginning commercial operations.

What about the cost of the permission?

The price of the Permission for Commercial Work is currently £173. The permission needs to be renewed annually, which costs £130. You will also need to obtain an adequate level of insurance before the permission is granted; your requirements should be discussed with your insurance provider direct. 

Professional membership

ARPAS-UK (the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) is the non-profit trade association for the UK RPAS industry and the only non-commercial professional body solely representing UAV operators and manufacturers in the UK. It has no commercial interests and all income is used to further the interests of its membership, and to ensure that the industry remains fair, safe and open. To get in touch with ARPAS-UK to find out more, see ‘Key contacts’.

With thanks to the Civil Aviation Authority for their assistance in the preparation of this feature. 

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