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?
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.
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.
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 centres across the UK. 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.
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 While the listing is, of course, no longer active, the qualifications it asked for might offer you some insight into the skills you’ll need: four-plus years’ experience of drone piloting, with a bonus if you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 next year. 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’.
A DRONE BY ANY OTHER NAME …
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.
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
Delivering medical supplies to otherwise inaccessible regions
Fire detection and monitoring
Inspection of power lines and pipelines
Keeping track of construction developments
Major accident investigation
Offshore and onshore inspections
Photography to assist planning applications
Providing graphics for 3D modelling
Search and rescue
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; 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 UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). It’s still a good idea, though, to keep a detailed record of all flying hours and operational experience, as this may still 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.
CAA rules require all drone pilots who operate commercially to be certified.In 2010 it introduced regulations that require operators of small unmannedaircraft (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 Operations (PfCO). ‘Commercial Operations’ are defined as using a UAV for commercial purposes – gaining any form of remuneration or ‘valuable consideration’ from the drone flight. For the CAA to award the PfCO, it requires a pilot to have undergone an accredited training course.
So, in order to fly a UAV for commercial reasons, the key requirement is to hold a PfCO 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 permission, the CAA requires you to complete an operations manual and give evidence of pilot competency, which is divided into three critical elements:
- adequate theoreticalknowledge/general airmanship
- successful completion of a practical flight assessment
- a minimum amount of recent flying experience – 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 PfCO, then there is no requirement for you to apply for a PfCO yourself, as you can simply be added as an approved remote pilot to your employer’s PfCO.
THE SKY IS NOT THE LIMIT!
CAA rules demand 400ft max height above surface level and 500m from the pilot
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL COURSE INVOLVE?
A typical NQE full course involves:
- 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:
- areusually 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.
HOW TO APPLY FOR YOUR PfCO
Once you have met all the above requirements you can make an application using the CAA’s online portal here
Allow up to 28 working days for your permission to be processed.
THE CAA DRONECODE
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
- over or within 150m of a congested areas or large gatherings such as concerts and sports events.
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 it’s vitally important to make sure you use a provider approved by the CAA. Several CAA-approved training providers in the UK have been accredited by the CAA. 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 end with an exam. After that, once your Operations’ Manual has been checked by the NQE, there’s a flight test. Once you have passed your flight assessment the NQE issues a certificate of recommendation and you can then apply for your PfCO via the CAA’s online portal. 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 (No GPS assistance) 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.
A Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO)is valid for up to 12 months and is subject to an annual renewal
It’s also worth considering training insurance and there are a number of providers, including:
through which you can access public liability insurance.
Once you have your PfCO …
Your PfCO 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 successfully commercially you will need to be able to operate in congested areas. The benefit of gaining your PfCO allows you to fly and work in congested areas. In some cases drone companies require enhanced permissions to fly the drone at further distances or closer to people and buildings. For these enhanced permissions or Operational Safety Cases (OSCs), the CAA wants to see a far greater emphasis on safety than that offered in passing the process outlined above.
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.
UAVs IN UK AIRSPACE
For full guidance, read
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 master your flying skills and pass the flight assessment. Once you submit your documents to the CAA for approval they have a Service Level Agreement to issue your PfCO within 28 working days although with the new online system this is current around 12 days. As for cost, NQEs’ fees vary but by the time you have paid for the necessary course(s) and your CAA PfCO 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 liabilityinsurancecosts before beginning commercial operations.
What about the cost of the PfCO?
The price of you initial PfCO application is currently £253 and there is also an annual renewal fee to consider which is £190. You will also need to obtain an adequate level of insurance before the PfCO is granted; your requirements should be discussed with your insurance provider direct.