Becoming a qualified drone pilot

Thom Airs is Fortitude’s certified drone pilot. Here he explains the importance of being safe and qualified in this relatively new industry.

I’ve been fascinated with the thought of remote aerial photography since I saw a mini rocket loaded with 110mm film in the pages of a model-airplane catalogue as a child. When consumer drones began to make a breakthrough in around 2013 I was immediately excited by the possibilities for stills and video. 

At the time, I was working full-time for Bauer Media’s magazine portfolio and tried to convince my colleagues these plastic quadcopters were the future. It took a little while, but eventually the business bought a DJI Phantom 2 and later put one of our full-time photographers through an early version of the training course mandated by the Civil Aviation Authority. 

I got my own DJI Phantom 4 shortly after its release in 2016 and began flying as a hobby before seeking out the qualification that would allow me to fly commercially in the summer of 2020 via Fortitude. 

The necessary qualifications

As in many quickly developing areas of technology, legislation has sometimes struggled to keep pace with the drone world, so the legal framework has evolved over the last few years.

Now, though, that governance is solidifying around two separate qualifications. Both are issued by the Civil Aviation Authority, which treats would-be drone pilots very much like pilots flying full-sized aircraft. 

I won’t delve into the technical details, but effectively one of the qualifications is a certificate of competence with no practical test and a number of flying restrictions, while the other – the General Visual Line of Sight Certificate (GVC) – is more detailed, requires the passing of a practical test and allows more freedom of flight. 

It’s the latter that is best suited to full commercial drone work in the UK, and that is the one we now possess at Fortitude.

The importance of safety 

Modern drones are mini marvels. They have collision-avoidance sensors, automatic return-to-home functions, GPS stability and huge ranges. But system failures can occur, users can make errors and members of the public can unwittingly put themselves in danger, making it crucial that remote pilots undertaking commercial work are properly trained.

The very thorough GVC training course I undertook involved watching six hours of pre-recorded videos, plus a full day in a (virtual) classroom with a small group and a tutor. The syllabus was broad, covering an in-depth look at weather conditions, air-space classification, navigation, emergency procedures and much more. A 40-question theory test then followed, ahead of a practical flight test at Howbery Park in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. 

Much like a driving test, the practical exam involved demonstrating my skills at the controls, plus three simulated emergencies including a mock fire and the incursion of a full-size aircraft. Crucially, all normal pilot aids had to be switched off, so the drone was flown completely manually, which is a valuable skill in windy conditions. 

Finally, a full operations manual had to be created and submitted to the CAA, just like pilots of traditional aircraft must do. This ops manual’, which runs to 60 pages, outlines your equipment, your training and your health-and-safety procedures.

What we can and can’t do

The GVC qualification, and the mandatory insurance we hold, allows us to fly drones for commercial work day or night. 

Providing I can still see the drone in the sky, I can fly up to 500m away from where I am positioned and up to 120m in altitude. 

A separation distance of 30m from people must be kept during take-off and landing, and a 50m separation must be kept at all times between the drone and people, cars and buildings not involved in’ (aware and briefed about) the flight. The drone can get much closer to people and the buildings or cars they are in providing they have been fully briefed. For large crowds of over 1,000 people, where it is impossible to brief everyone, that separation distance extends to 150m. 

Landowner’s permission is necessary for take-off and landing areas and we must make sure we are allowed to fly inside the local airspace. Around airports or RAF bases that can involves making a call to air-traffic control or checking that no low-flying aircraft – such as the Red Arrows – are due to be flying in the area that day. 

All this requires a deal of planning and preparation that we will diligently undertake before undertaking any aerial photo or video work. 

If you would like to have a chat about how drone aerial video and drone aerial photography could help you please get in touch here.

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