5 Considerations When Selecting a Drone Operator

Drones are becoming a commonly used tool in many business sectors with new applications emerging all the time.  The number of companies and individuals advertising their services as commercial drone operators is also increasing steadily with many of these thousands of operators making claims about their experience and capabilities in an effort to stand out from the crowd. So how should you go about choosing a commercial drone operator to ensure that you get the level of service and experience that your particular application requires?

  1. Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO)
    Firstly the basics. Anyone selling their services as a commercial drone operator must hold a current Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO) from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and you must check that they hold this permission. The award of a PfCO demonstrates that the operator has the necessary flight skills, understands all the relevant airspace and flight safety rules and regulations and understands everything, including weather forecasting and equipment limitations, that will enable them to operate safely.
    As well as asking to see the operator’s PfCO, you should also check the details yourself against the CAA’s own live register, known as CAP1362, which can be found at https://publicapps.caa.co.uk/cap1361. There have been many reports of rogue operators forging CAA PfCOs and of others, when asked, not even knowing what a PfCO is! It’s worth remembering that knowingly employing a drone operator without PfCO could leave you open to charges of vicarious liability should something go wrong.
    As part of the PfCO application process, operators have to demonstrate to the CAA that they have adequate, drone-specific, Public Liability insurance in place. You should always ask to see evidence of this insurance and check also that it covers the requirements of all stakeholders for your specific site or project location.

  2. References, Risk Assessment and Method Statements
    A reputable drone operator should be able to give you references from satisfied clients as well as case studies covering the particular application you are considering such as; mapping and surveying, close up asset inspection or more creative productions. Additionally you should be able to ask for example Risk Assessments and Method Statements to reassure yourself that Health & Safety is taken seriously.

  3. Caution:  Grand Claims Ahead!
    Always be suspicious of grand marketing claims such as “we’re the only operator able to work at night”. By default, all PfCOs now issued by the CAA allow operators to work at night with the correct procedures in place.
    Some operators may hold what is known as an Operating Safety Case (OSC) which allows them to work closer to buildings and people or perhaps higher or further from the pilot.
    This can be absolutely essential for some applications but is not always needed, so it’s worth making yourself familiar with what is permitted under a ‘standard’ PfCO. Operators with a standard PfCO can fly up to a maximum height above ground of 400ft (121m) but must keep the drone within 500m and within Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) of the pilot at all times.
    The drone has to be kept 50m away from people or property that are not under the operator’s control except during take-off and landing when this separation can be reduced to 30m.

  4. Start With The End In Mind
    An experienced drone operator will always start by agreeing a clear brief of the end results that you’re looking for. This will clearly be different for a creative filming project compared to a high resolution, high accuracy mapping project and some operators who may specialise in one application might not be able to deliver exactly what you need in terms of accuracy for example.
    The ‘deliverable’ will have a huge impact on the choice of drone equipment to be used, the method of flying, camera settings and even the time of day images should be captured.
    It’s hardly ever a case of simply  ‘getting some snaps’ and then throwing these into a magic piece of software.
    Quality control starts at the very beginning of project planning and a clear understanding by the drone operator of the processes and quality control involved in different workflows is essential, particularly in applications such as detailed mapping and surveying.

  5. Membership of Trade Bodies
    As the number and technical capability of drones increases rapidly, legislation is normally slow to catch up. Events such as ‘Gatwick’ in December 2018 can however lead to rapid step changes in legislation and it’s important that operators keep themselves informed of such changes and are aware of how they might be affected. Being a member of a trade body such as ARPAS-UK can help operators stay informed and membership should offer a degree of confidence to someone selecting an operator.

A basic introduction to the rules covering flying of drones for both commercial and noncommercial use, including new restrictions for drone flights close to aerodromes,  is given in the ‘Dronecode’ available at dronesafe.uk.

More detailed guidance covering the commercial operation of drones can be found on the CAA’s website:

https://www.caa.co.uk/Commercial-industry/Aircraft/Unmanned-aircraft/Small-drones/Regulations-relating-to-the-commercial-use-of-small-drones/

"It's time for sensible discussions" - drone incidents at Gatwick and Heathrow Airport

"Is the car inherently evil?”

In the first decade of the 20th century there were no stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver's education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, driver's licenses or posted speed limits. Our current method of making a left turn [USA] was not known, and drinking-and-driving was not considered a serious crime.

There was little understanding of speed. A driver training bulletin called "Sportsmanlike Driving" had to explain velocity and centrifugal force and why when drivers took corners at high speed their cars skidded or sometimes "turned turtle" (flipped over). 

Politicians, police and judges debated how to control them: What was the law of the road, and who was guilty or innocent in cases of lawsuit and litigation?"(ref: https://tinyurl.com/y9wl7c79)

Sound familiar? So... we're here again.

It is the early days of exponential growth of a new technology, people are a little bit scared of unmanned aircraft; existing legislation and infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the pace of change and today it appears that someone has maliciously used that technology to cause major disruption at Gatwick Airport, UK. Myself and a number of my colleagues who have been living and breathing drones for a few years now have been called upon to offer comment in the media.

Why aren't the geofences working? Why can't the drones be shot down? How are they being controlled? Should drones be banned? Should we increase legislation?

Those are pretty much the questions we have been asked all day in varying tones of consternation and frustration.

Let me first say how sorry I feel for all the people caught up in the delays and inconvenience of today. Personally, I feel that Gatwick have responded totally appropriately and it is better to have people delayed and inconvenienced than to have an incident resulting in injury or death.

There are going to be a lot of learning points to take away from this situation. As an industry body we have been warning for 5 years or more that there is the potential for drones to be misused, as can any useful technology. I sat in a conference in 2013 where I explained to key stakeholders how I could potentially do exactly what has been done today, so it doesn't surprise me that it has happened, I am just very thankful that it has actually had a relatively benign outcome that will hopefully get people talking about prevention.

Unfortunately, the prevention is the difficult part at the moment. When open source technology is used, that operates on readily available frequencies, it is very easy to bypass both technological and physical barriers. Nets, birds of prey, frequency jammers etc. are not in themselves going to stop a malicious pilot until it is far too late. It is going to take the defence mechanisms, plus intelligence and education, to minimise the risk of a repetition and, at the end of the day, it may not be possible to stop it.

Geofencing is vulnerable as it relies on software respecting the geofence. All a geofence is is the equivalent of a polite notice saying "please don't fly here", if a drone says "no" or doesn't read the sign there is nothing that can be done.

Physical deterrents require that deterrent to be in the right place, at the right time. If something can fire a net, a drone can fly higher. Frequency jammers are effective up to a point, but there are ways around that.

Legislation is helpful, where people are willing to follow it. But if people say no then what can you do?

When it comes down to it, this isn't a drone issue. Drones are VERY useful; we do a lot of good work with them that either can't be done by other methods or reduces costs or improves human safety. We inspect structures, we map, we model, we create beautiful images. We have done so for the last six years and we do it well.

This is a human issue. A human has used a drone to deliberately disrupt in the same way we use drones to deliberately improve. The same can be said of almost every human innovation since the sharpened stick. Except possibly the Rubik's cube, but I bet if I dig deep enough into the internet I can find someone who has managed to misuse one.

Should we ban drones? Of course not. They are a useful tool. Should we legislate, educate and continue to innovate? Of course! It is what we do. Our instructors have trained thousands of pilots over the last five years. We hear great stories of what they are up to almost every day and I am continuously impressed by the new ideas that I see on an almost daily basis when drones are used properly as part of toolboxes and processes.

The drone industry is now shifting. The drones are not really much more difficult to use than a drill or a DSLR. A "drone operator" as a job in the future is about as likely as "hammer operator" is now, the drone is simply becoming part of the wider toolbox that different industries have open to them.

It is important that they are used properly in the context of the industries they are applied in. It is obvious, over time, that they will become even more automated and there will be further moves towards autonomy.

But all the time people still need educating and enthusing on the use of drones, we'll be here at The Aerial Academy to assist, and all the time pilots are needed to provide skills in data acquisition and post-processing, the team at HexCam will be happy to help.

I hope that the situation at Gatwick is soon resolved and that the people responsible are appropriately prosecuted. I hope that this will lead to sensible discussions on how drone technology can be appropriately legislated and risks mitigated moving forwards. And I look forward to continuing to be involved in this great emerging sector.

That's it... two-pence worth. If you want more I'll need another 4p please. It is nearly double-time for Christmas after all.

E