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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: