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 expansion in related careers. Perhaps you 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 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, military drones are now 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, since 30 November 2019, it has been illegal to fly one without first registering and passing a theory test. To find out how to do this, click here.
It is also important to note that from 31 December 2020, new regulations governing the use of drones will come into force in the UK and across Europe. These will be substantially different from the current regulations. Although these new regulations were originally scheduled to apply from 1 July 2020, the European Commission has postponed their application until the end of 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This effectively means that UAV operators and pilots will have six months of extra time to adapt before the regulations come into force at the end of 2020.
The key differences between the current and incoming regulations are that:
- there will no longer be a distinction made between commercial and recreational flying
- the training organisations currently known as National Qualified Entities (NQEs) – as referred to throughout this article – will have to ‘transition’ to become Recognised Assessment Entities (RAEs)
- there will be 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.
For a note about the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) terminology, please refer to the accompanying box, ‘The CAA and Brexit’.
THE CAA AND BREXIT
In the event of the UK leaving the EU without a negotiated agreement, some CAA website content and application forms may in the short term continue to carry the EASA logo, or reference the EU or EASA rather than the UK CAA. This will be updated in due course following the UK’s departure from the EU. In the meantime, the guidance provided and the application forms accessed via the CAA website portal will continue to be valid.
For up-to-date information and guidance, click here.
Where could you work?
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. Operations were expected to begin in selected cities starting in late 2019, however at the time of writing (September 2020) the service has yet to materialise.
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
Skill up while serving
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 Service experience, it remains advisable to demonstrate your commitment to the industry by undertaking specific professional development where available.
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:
- 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).
As noted at the outset of this feature, everyone who uses a drone (whether for recreational or commercial purposes) needs first to register to do so and pass a theory test. Click here to find out more.
Looking in particular at commercial drone usage, CAA rules require all drone pilots who operate commercially to be certified. To read the CAA ‘Regulations relating to the commercial use of small drones’ in full, click here.
The regulations 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 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.
Any generic commercial ‘drone training’ course you embark on should prepare you fully to make your application to the CAA for a PfCO. 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 theoretical knowledge/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 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.
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 training providers in the UK are accredited by the CAA, courses are available in many locations across the country, and there are different training options on offer, depending on your needs.
During the course, your chosen training provider will take you through a ‘ground school’ lasting around two days, where the process of writing your operations manual will be discussed in detail. Sometimes this ground school is augmented by computer-based distance learning and will end with an exam. After that, once your ops 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 ops 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 the 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 considering insurance and there are a number of providers through which you can access public liability insurance, including:
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL COURSE INVOLVE?
(Please note that this is an example of the procedure under normal circumstances and may have been adapted due to the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic. Always check with training providers for the latest information.)
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:
- 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.
Once you have your PfCO …
Your PfCO allows you to fly within the confines of the CAA’s Air Navigation Order. 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.
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 it has a Service Level Agreement to issue your PfCO within 28 working days, although with its online system this is currently taking 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 £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 PfCO?
The price of your initial PfCO application is currently £253 and there is also an annual renewal fee to consider, which is £190. Under the terms of the new regulations discussed at the start of this feature, the first time you renew after December 2020 your PfCO will be changed to an Operational Authorisation, but the terms in it will remain the same. 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.
Please always check with the CAA for the latest information.
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.
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.
COVID-19 DISTANCE LEARNING UPDATE!
Still flying high during the pandemic
‘COVID-19 has given a relatively new type of aircraft a chance to flourish in an era of social distancing and in places where the disease has disrupted the delivery of supplies.’ So says a recent article in The Engineer, which further comments that, ‘with varying degrees of efficacy, aerial drones have been used during the pandemic to spray disinfectant, broadcast messages to disperse crowds, monitor people’s temperatures and deliver medical supplies’, which all seems to confirm that the era of the drone is well and truly open for business!
Although (at the time of writing) training providers are currently unable to run the usual face-to-face practical element of their courses, many have been quick to adapt and find alternative ways to continue to support learning and development, such as delivering courses virtually. This means you will still get the same level of expert training, but from the safety and convenience of your chosen location. However, it remains wise to check with training providers for the latest information, and that the course(s) you are interested in can be completed virtually or, if necessary, with safe in-person interaction.