Ten ways to identify a professional drone operator

Drone operators within the UK are required by law to hold a Permission for Commercial Operations (“PfCO”) if they receive any form of financial reward for conducting aerial work. Simply put, if you are employing a drone operator who does not have a valid permission or offering drone services without a PfCO then you are breaking the law. Professional drone operators that hold a PfCO are trained to conduct operations in a safe manner and must also hold insurance to cover them them for their activities. Professional drone operators can typically be identified for some if not all of the following 10 characteristics:

1. A professional operator will show you a copy of their PfCO

If you are employing someone for aerial work always ask if they have hold a valid PfCO. Professional operators will be more than happy to produce this if requested. Operators that do not hold a valid permission put the public at risk and undermine the hard work that professionals drone pilots have invested. You should be suspicious at anyone who is vague with regards to this or does not come across as professional in their approach.

2. A professional operator will be insured

Legal operators will always be insured. This protects you should anything go wrong. As a guide they will usually hold a minimum of £1M public liability insurance and depending on the services may hold other forms of insurance such as professional indemnity. Illegal operators on the other hand will not hold insurance and you may be left with considerable damage on your hands if something should go wrong.

3. A professional operator will plan every job

No matter how small an aerial job is it requires planning. This is because to operate a drone in a legal and professional manner you have to abide by the rules and conditions as set down by the Civil Aviation Authority and the Air Navigation Order. Be very suspicious about anyone who does not appear to be concerned about this. All professionals will have to evaluate a job first and work out the most effective way of conducting an operation so that it is both legal and practical. Depending on the individual permissions that an operator has in their PfCO it may be that some jobs are just too high a risk to take on.

4. A qualified drone pilot will not have a laissez-faire attitude

If a drone pilot offers their services and is overly confident about what they can provide then treat this as a warning sign. If you live in the Yorkshire Dales or some remote part of northern Scotland then this may not be a problem, however in most locations providing drone services takes some effort. A laissez-faire attitude may indicate a lack of knowledge or what is often the case, a complete disregard or contempt for the rules. Remember if they do not care about doing the right thing they will probably not care too much about their final deliverable to you or the safety of others. Yes there are many professional drone companies that can offer you a service with confidence but they will never underplay the requirement to do it right.

5. The professional will always conduct a risk assessment

Different operators may approach each assignment in a different way but one thing that they will all have in common is the need to conduct a thorough risk assessment. The risk assessment is a fundamental part of any assignment whether it is a roof inspection, a marketing video for a promotional event or the mapping off a new construction site. Risk assessing the job requirements involve many things. This includes assessing the risk to other air users, the risk of injury to innocent bystanders and the risk of infringing upon the privacy of everyday people going about their daily lives. It is only once the operator has satisfied himself that they can mitigate all risks through the enforcement of specific controls and safeguards that the project can go ahead. This is essential if the operator needs to remain compliant with the requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority, the Air Navigation Order and procedures as set down in their Operations Manual. Any drone operator that does not approach every job in this manner is not a professional.

6. Professionals are prepared to say, “No”

Sometimes jobs just can’t be performed safely from a drone. There may be many reasons for this such as the proximity to an airport, a prison or an area of particular significance. A good drone operator will identify this and be honest with their client. Non professional operators on the other hand may offer a service which does not feel right or where there is a blatant breach of the rules. These people need to be avoided as they are probably not insured and may provide you with a product that can’t be used as it may ultimately be flagged as “obtained illegally”. Not all jobs of course will be impossible to do. Many professional operators have specific Operational Safety Cases (“OSC’s”) which allow them to conduct work in situations that others cannot. At the end of the day the more high risk that a job appears to be then the more safeguards an operator will need to enforce. This will limit the number of operators that can respond to high risk and specialised assignments.

7. Professional drone pilots should not be cheap

Market forces ultimately drive price and drone operators are not immune to this. Currently many drone operator are offering services at bargain prices that do not reflect the skills and effort it takes to conduct such work. The one thing that we should all be careful about however, is that it takes investment and time to provide a professional and competent service. A good drone operator needs to recuperate these costs to survive and hence a professional service is not sustainable if it fails to achieve this. If you are paying next to nothing for a drone pilot to take your real estate pictures or inspect your factory roof then you need to ask yourself if you have engaged a legal pilot or not. Anyone offering unrealistic prices are likely to be unqualified and uninsured. What does this mean? It means that they have not undergone the training which is fundamental to understanding risk, let alone the training which is required to pilot a drone in all types of situations. Remember – illegal pilots make bad pilots and put everyone at risk.

8. Professional drone pilots can fly a drone but this is not everything

Anyone who loves model aircraft and has flown them over the years will appreciate that this is both a fantastic experience and a highly skilled task. Flying model aircraft is not easy when having to continually battle orientation issues and in some ways this can make it a more difficult task to master than flying a full size aircraft. Having said that, surely flying a drone is much easier as they pretty much fly themselves, don’t they? Well this is true to a certain extent and it is what makes drones so attractive for commercial work. If flying a drone required the same level of concentration as flying a traditional model plane then it would be almost impossible to do anything else without a second operator being in charge of the camera. Flying a drone however is assisted by technology making it easier and safer to fly and most drone pilots can learn to fly them and operate a camera or another payload at the same time. Okay, so you don’t have to be an ace pilot to fly a drone commercially but a professional pilot does need to understand their own limitations in order to not put the public or others at risk. Piloting a drone is only part of the overall package. Understanding and assessing the risk of the job and acting appropriately in the face of those risks is the most important characteristic of being a safe and professional drone pilot.

9. A professional drone pilot remains up to date

The rules relating to commercial drone use are in a constantly changing state. Updates to the Air Navigation Order are being made regularly and there is ongoing discussion with the government and other influential bodies as to the direction that drone regulation should take. A professional drone pilot should keep themselves abreast of these changes as it is fundamental to the success of the business. Drones have taken us by storm and nobody really knows how this is all going to end up. There is a bit of everything happening right now. Overreaction is certainly there in that some would argue that the proposed regulatory changes and new laws are disproportionate to the actual risk, while there are those that would argue that drones have the potential to cause significant harm if they are not tightly controlled. The one thing that anyone who is contemplating hiring a drone pilot should do is to check how conversant the drone pilot is with these discussions. Any drone pilot who cannot converse in this area should be avoided.

10. So what makes a professional drone pilot?

In summary, a professional drone pilot must be able to safely and competently control their aircraft but this is only the start. They are also someone who respects the rules, applies good practice and understands good risk management. The technology in modern drones has allowed us to utilise these machines to conduct traditional work in a much more efficient and economical way. It has allowed us to explore new technological feats in a way that could only have been imagined years ago. We should respect these machines along with the professional drone pilot as it is clearly becoming the technology of today and the future.