Becoming a commercial drone pilot

Drone Safe Register™ (DSR) is the nation’s leading drone hire website. All our members have been pre-checked for CAA approval and commercial drone insurance.

Our drone hire directory and digital map displays the profiles of hundreds of legal drone pilots in all parts of the UK.  DSR is the ‘go-to’ place to locate an approved drone pilot.

Drone Safe Register™ (DSR) gets asked a lot, how can I become a commercial drone pilot and join DSR?

So with that in mind we have created this blog to help signpost the route for anybody just starting out and wanting to join the industry.

With the UK becoming more aware of the need to check for CAA approval when hiring a drone – now is the time to get qualified and legal if you want to operate commercially.

There are some important factors in becoming a commercial drone pilot.   DSR breaks these down and gives you their take on these considerations.  Follow these simple steps to make sure you are flying safely and legally.

Tim Johnson of the CAA says, “Drone users must understand that when taking to the skies they are entering one of the busiest areas of airspace in the world – a complex system that brings together all manner of aircraft including passenger aeroplanes, military jets, helicopters, gliders, light aircraft and now drones.”

When you fly a drone in the UK it is your responsibility to be aware of the rules that are in place to keep everyone safe.

By law, anybody operating their drone commercially i.e. charging for the service MUST have permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and hold valid commercial insurance.  Failure to comply with CAA regulations could result in hefty fines and even a prison sentence.

Even if you have permission from the land or property owner, without a PFCO you can be prosecuted if you operate commercially without CAA approval.

Across the board, in many industry sectors, from weddings to commercial productions, we have seen a rise in illegal drone pilots being hired.   In July last year it was reported that an illegal drone operator was used to promote a national company whilst flying next to a busy main road.  Law firm, Charles Russell Speechly’s, reports that over half (55%) of the UK’s estate agents surveyed via YouGov felt they were NOT knowledgeable about the UK’s current rules / regulations on drone use.

Becoming a commercial drone pilot –  Getting Qualified

In order to use your drone commercially you will need permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).  The CAA control all airspace use in the UK.  The use of drones is regulated by the CAA and enforced by the police.  If you gain a ‘valuable consideration’ from flying your drone, by law, you need permission from the CAA for aerial work.  Valuable consideration may not always equate to money, it could be an exchange of services too.  CAA permission is known as a ‘Permission for Commercial Operation (PFCO).  PFCO documents are renewed annually.  The UK drone industry is expanding fast –  at the time of writing there are 3558 CAA qualified drone operators.  All qualified and CAA approved pilots would have no hesitation in providing you with their CAA approval document (PFCO) and insurance certificate on request.  Just because it states on a drone pilot’s website that they have CAA approval – do not accept this. Ask for a physical copy of their PFCO.

Drone Pilot Training

In the UK, in order to gain CAA PFCO you will need to complete a course that requires you to demonstrate the necessary skills and knowledge needed by a commercial drone operator.

The training process requires you to be educated in air law and safe operations of your drone, compile an operations manual, undertake a flight test and apply for permission to fly commercially from the CAA.

The CAA does not run these courses directly but instead approves commercial National Qualified Entities (NQEs) to conduct the training and assessment on their behalf.


Typically, how long does it take to get qualified?

You can expect this whole process to usually take 2 months – the CAA turnaround time for new PfCO applications is 28 working days.

The proof of competency course is typically 2 days in a classroom environment. You will then be required to write your operations manual before taking the practical flight assessment, which takes half a day.

The exam is an open book and involves a multiple choice test.  Aviation charts are used in this exam.

What is an operations manual?

The operations manual is an integral part of how you’re going to operate your drone company commercially.  Your ops manual will be specific to your chosen drone work that you plan to operate in.

It details all the procedures that you will use to ensure you fly your drone safely on commercial paid jobs.

NQEs will help assess your manual and recommend any changes prior to you submitting it to the CAA along with your application for PfCO / Insurance.

Current costs for PFCO application for first time pilots is £192.

Renewal costs after 1 year is reduced to £130.  The CAA are proposing a 40% price increase of all CAA drone operator fees this year (April 2018).  Worth noting this for your set up costs.

Practice, Practice, Practice

To get to grips with flying a drone one of the best things you can do is purchase a cheap drone from Amazon or Ebay.  First practise in a safe place (with land owners permission) taking off with your drone and keeping it in the air.  Practise on a calm day so your drone does not fly off in the wind.

As soon as you have totally mastered the controls then it’s worth upgrading your kit to entry level commercial drone equipment.

DSR recommends the DJI Phantom 4 Pro as the best entry level commercial drone.  With its 1 inch camera sensor and excellent flight time, it can be used effectively for a variety of applications (inspections / mapping / aerial property marketing – the list is long)

DJI have published some great online tutorials:

Practise until flying operation becomes second nature.  Professional drone operators need many hours of practice in order to be properly prepared for day to day piloting and to be able to focus on the job in hand.  The challenge comes when more advanced flying skills are required to navigate obstacles and capture that perfect shot, here again nothing can replace practice.  DSR hears of many people underestimating the amount of time required to become a proficient pilot.

Kit and Hardware costs

How deep do your pockets need to be?  Drones, the hardware, software and ancillary equipment does not come cheap.  In a nutshell your pockets will need to be deep.

It’s worth considering the amount of money that you will be required to spend on hardware to effectively operate commercially. Commercial drone kits typically range from £1500 to £20,000 plus.

Many drone operators will take a ‘back-up drone’ on location in case their first drone fails them on the day.

On top of the actual drone you will need additional batteries. And lots of them – as you can’t attend a job with just one battery i.e  20 -25 mins of flight time.

Most drone professionals carry a minimum of 6 batteries.  Sometimes even more on a big job.

Operators will also have a mobile charging kit on hand.  This enables batteries to charge as soon as they are spent / cooled down.  Many pilots have solutions to keep their batteries warm on a cold day including battery warmers. A warm battery is happy battery!  Overall, kit wise, if you do your pricing correctly, charge sensible day rates for your services and equipment, you can build up your kit and buy the latest equipment on an annual basis.  One thing often forgotten is the need to have a powerful enough computer to handle the large files / photo / video editing of your aerial imagery.

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About the Author: DSR Journalist

Henry Greenshields

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