When talking about making money with drones, many people in the UK talk about needing a “license” to fly commercially. This is no longer the case. On 31 December 2020, new unmanned aviation laws were introduced that no longer distinguish between commercial and recreational drone flying.
To become a commercial drone pilot in the UK, you merely need to be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and have EC785/2004 compliant commercial insurance.
Which drone you have and where you plan to fly it will determine what certifications you need as an operator.
Previously you would have needed to submit a request for permission for commercial operations (PfCO) and obtain an Operational Authorisation from the CAA.
This has been superseded by three levels of certification, which include the CAA’s DMARES test, the A2 Certificate of Competence (A2CofC), and the General Visual Line of Sight Certificate (GVC).
The Law (Drone Regulations in the UK)
In line with the regulations brought in for Europe, regulation of unmanned aviation in the UK is now defined in three categories:
- The Open Category (DMARES test, A2CofC)
- The Specific Category (GVC + Operational Authorisation)
- The Certified Category (Further certification)
These categories are based on the mass of the drone you want to fly and how close you want to fly it to uninvolved people (people not involved with your drone flight).
The CAA have several guidance documents on these categories and their respective restrictions, a summary of which can be found here.
In summary, flying heavier drones closer to people requires some training and certification and, in some cases, an Operational Authorisation from the CAA.
The bare minimum for commercial drone flying
In short, if your drone has a camera and is not a toy, then you will be required at the very minimum to complete the DMARES test to register yourself as an operator with the CAA and obtain your operator and flyer IDs.
You will also need commercial liability insurance compliant with EC785/2004 for any commercial flights you undertake.
Commercial insurance is available as an annual policy or for daily cover through providers such as Coverdrone.
Where you can fly your drone legally will then be determined by the mass of your drone, in line with the regulations.
“I have a DJI Mini 3 Pro. Do I need the A2CofC or GVC?”
In the UK, drones like the DJI Mini 3 Pro that have a mass less than 250g can be flown over and close to uninvolved people in the Open Category, even without the A2CofC or GVC, but they cannot be flown over crowds or assemblies of people.
However, even if you only plan to fly commercially with sub-250g drones, there are several reasons to consider obtaining certifications.
Firstly, do you want to be offering drone services to clients without having a good understanding of all the regulations and best practices?
Training for the A2CofC and GVC helps you obtain and retain regulatory knowledge and essential skills so you can fly safely and deliver a high standard of service.
Secondly, many businesses will only be interested in working with certified drone operators having a minimum of the A2CofC to show that they have a recognised base level of flying competency.
If you want to legally fly heavier drones closer to uninvolved people and in built-up areas, then further certification, like the A2 CofC and the GVC, is needed.
“I have a drone and I am ready to start flying it commercially.”
Even if you have a drone and you have obtained your A2CofC or GVC, the real challenge comes with getting yourself out there and letting people know about your drone services and what you can offer them.
The drone industry is growing all the time, but so is the competition within it. You need to carve out your space in this industry by identifying what makes your drone services special.
Ask friends, colleagues, or even your current employer whether you can use your drone to create content at any upcoming events.
You can also reach out to local sports clubs and businesses to offer your services in exchange for theirs, or at discounted rates, to help develop your portfolio.
However, doing anything and everything won’t help you make your mark on the industry. Take your time, and choose sectors where you feel you can add value to the businesses you work with.
That being said, I have identified a few sectors where, at the time of writing this article, drone operators and drone services are in demand in the UK.
With improvements to the UK’s green energy infrastructure being made at a rapid pace, drones can provide a cost-effective way of monitoring renewable energy systems, such as wind turbines and solar farms.
Monitoring of these systems can range from basic aerial photography through to thermal scanning and 3D mapping of system components.
For example, it is becoming commonplace for solar farms to be thermally scanned to identify failing and inefficient solar panels.
Likewise, with wind turbines, thermal scanning can help identify stresses in turbines so that engineers can repair or replace parts of the turbines.
First Person View (FPV) Drone Operations
FPV drone filming is gaining momentum in the UK and has applications in a number of sectors, including Film & TV, Digital Marketing, Surveying, and Construction.
FPV drones have little to no flight assistance, requiring manual control of the drone at all times. This requires pilots to have a good amount of flying experience and control in order to fly FPV drones at a commercial level.
For example, for Film & TV, FPV pilots need to be able to fly extremely smoothly in order to keep the subject of the shot in focus and not detract from the scene. This requires not only good drone handling, but also good drone tuning.
Many drones used for Film & TV are privately built, and the flight characteristics are tuned to ensure that vibrations from both the drone and external factors are minimised.
FPV drones can also create extremely smooth video tours and can be used both indoors and outdoors, which has made them popular for creating marketing videos exploring interior spaces.
The main competitor to FPV drones in this sector is the Matterport service.
Similarly, small FPV drones can be used for inspections to access those hard-to-reach places, where several personnel and expensive equipment would otherwise be needed for access.
They can also access spaces that are impossible to access by humans or other types of drones.
Automated Drone Flights
The UK recently announced the development of Skyway, the world’s first automated drone super highway.
Many UK businesses focussing on automated drone flights are looking for drone operators to help them develop the drones and infrastructure.
This development may involve testing drones, inspecting areas for proposed flight paths, and inspecting infrastructure to ensure that future automated flights can proceed safely.
With the broad range of drone applications, there are many other areas where drone operators are needed, and I would suggest reaching out to different sectors where you feel drone services could add value and solve problems.
In summary, becoming a commercial drone pilot in the UK is now far more straightforward than it was in 2020, provided you can get your head around the new regulations.
This has resulted in an increase in the number of commercial drone operators in the UK, but don’t let that put you off.
There are so many applications for drones that you should be able to find your place in the drone industry.
Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace – Guidance (link)