Drone Operator Training
The rapid growth in commercial acceptance of unmanned aerial vehicles – commonly known as drones – is fuelling an enormous expansion in applications and related careers. What does it take to become a commercial drone operator? Read on to find out …
What are commercial drones?
Drones – or, to give them their ‘official’ 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 in use in a huge variety of different areas, drones have a large – and growing – range of applications, in sectors such as aerial filming and photography, agriculture, logistics (e.g. parcel delivery), policing and surveillance, and even racing. Despite their origins, these days military drones are completely outnumbered by their civilian counterparts.
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 on-board 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 this article focuses on commercial rather than recreational drone use, however you intend to use a drone it is important to know that it is against the law to fly one without first registering and passing a theory test. There are two requirements and you may need to meet both:
- if you’ll fly, you must pass a theory test to get your Flyer ID
- if you’re responsible for a drone or model aircraft,
you must register for an Operator ID.
To find out how to do this, click here.
It is also important to note that on 31 December 2020, new regulations governing the use of drones came into force in the UK and across Europe. (Although these new regulations were originally scheduled to apply from 1 July 2020, the European Commission postponed their application until the end of 2020 due to the Covid-19 outbreak.)
The key differences between the current regulations and those that preceded them are that:
- there is no longer a distinction made between commercial and recreational flying
- there are now three categories of operation – Open, Specific and Certified – and three standard levels of training and assessment; which one you will need will be determined by the nature of your intended flying and the drone you plan to use.
To find out more and keep up to date with current regulations, click here.
What kinds of jobs do commercial drone pilots do?
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’ll look at just a few of the most popular commercial drone pursuits …
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 announced some years ago that it would be exploring the concept of drone delivery for its packages – a service it dubs Prime Air – 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. Although as of November 2022, the service is yet to launch, Amazon customers in California look set to receive the first Prime Air deliveries very soon. Click here to find out more.
Google delivery subsidiary Wing, meanwhile, is surging forwards – or, rather, upwards. Having already made several thousand deliveries direct to customers, it’s already making good on its promises … as long as you live in one of several specific locations. By partnering with various other businesses, Wing has carried out proof-of-concept deliveries for everything from artisanal cheeses to FedEx packages. So it seems like delivery-by-drone is at last taking off, although it’s gathering pace relatively slowly.
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’.
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
THE CAA DRONE CODE
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 primary aim of the CAA’s Drone and Model Aircraft Code 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:
- Always keep your drone in direct sight and don’t fly it higher than 120m.
- Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields – never fly in an airfield restriction zone.
- Use your common sense and fly safely; you could be prosecuted if you don’t.
- Never fly closer that 50m to people, vehicles, buildings or structures, or over or within 150m of a congested areas or large gatherings of 1000-plus people (e.g. concerts and sports events).
Source: CAA: Where you can fly
Because drones started life in a military context, there are obvious career pathways 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. And although military UAV experience is not automatically recognised by the CAA, it’s still a good idea 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 Forces experience, it remains advisable to demonstrate your commitment to the industry by undertaking specific professional development where available.
What qualifications do I need to become a commercial drone operator?
As noted above, everyone who flies a drone (whether for recreational or commercial purposes) needs first to register and take a test to acquire the relevant ID. Click here for full details.
Looking in particular at commercial drone usage, you will need to be fully CAA certified. As started earlier, there are currently two IDs you must have to fly a drone commercially, depending on the type of permission required and the operation you are intending to perform: Flyer ID and/or Operator ID. In addition, the Permissions required are the A2 Certificate of Competency (A2CofC) and/or GVC + Operational Authorisation.
To find out all you need to know about qualifying to fly a drone commercially (registration, training courses, tests, etc.) click here for up-to-date, expert advice from the Drone Safe Register. On its website you’ll also find a list of Recognised Assessment Entities (RAEs) – these are the official drone training providers, who will help you get your new career off the ground.
And of course it goes without saying that the CAA also has a wealth of useful information on its website.
What about insurance?
It’s the responsibility of every commercial drone operator to ensure they have appropriate insurance coverage. There are a number of providers through which you can access public liability insurance. These include:
• British Model Flying Association
Use your ELC
Under the ELC scheme, a wide range of learning can be taken, provided it is offered by an approved provider listed on the ELC website and is at level 3 or above. For full details of how to make the most of your ELC, refer to the in-depth features elsewhere on this website.
Always check with the CAA for the latest information.