From FPV to Commercial Droning
Ever since setting out on my adventure into the multirotor world when building my DIY 450 3/4 years ago I have always dreamt about aerial photography and video with the potential to go commercial and make back some £’s, however the process seemed a long and expensive one so for over 3 years it never happened..
This month I actually took the plunge and started my journey into the commercial world.. Well I started the training! And i’ve decided to put this article to share my experiences from the perspective of a somewhat ‘experienced’ builder / flyer of multirotors.
This is my experience, having held no other qualifications in this area such as BNUC or PPL. I believe if you have aviation associated qualifications that the process of gaining your Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO) can differ.
PfCO PfAW CAA EASA WTF?
First thing is first, the aviation world love their acronyms and when it comes to drones it is no different. The Permission for Commercial Operation is (PfCO) is what you require from the CAA to be able to operate a UAV such as a multirotor for commercial purposes. I’m not going to go into the debate of what constitutes ‘Commercial work’. The CAA have a definition of this, but basically if you want to make money from flying drones then you require PfCO.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are the authority within the UK when it comes to Aviation. Within Europe we have an overarching authority known as the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) and another tier above is the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) who coordinate things at an international level. Currently we only have to be concerned with CAA regulations for a typical small UAV.
Some of you might hear the term Permission for Aerial Work (PfAW) this was the previous term used by the CAA, which was re-branded and superseded by PfCO. I believe it was something to do with making things more clear?!..
How do I get PfCO?
In a nut shell, to gain PfCO (as in my case with no prior aviation qualifications) you need to go through the following steps; Theory Training > Operations Manual > Flight Evaluation > PfCO Application to CAA.
- Theory Training – Get training from a National Qualified Entity (NQE) who are approved by the CAA and sit the theory test given by the NQE.
- Operations Manual – Prepare your operations manual, which simply put a document covering all the procedures you plan to following during operation.
- Flight Evaluation – Plan and execute a flight test scenario where you will be evaluated during. You are tested against your Ops manual as well as aspects such as airmanship and safety.
- PfCO application – All going well and you pass the theory and flight evaluation, you can then make an application to the CAA where the NQE will recommend you as a suitably competent for your PfCO.
Mind blown by acronyms, job done!..
How much will it cost?
The big question for me at the beginning was always, how much will it cost? Once you figure this out, it either makes sense or it doesn’t in terms of financial commitment (basically “can I make the money back”). I ran some numbers over and over and decided to go for it.
The costs are not astronomical but they soon stack up. Going from hobbyist to commercial will cost you:
- ~£1000 upward for NQE Training Course which will typically include theory, theory test, Operations Manual preparation and flight evaluation, more on this to follow.
- £112 to £224 for the CAA PfCO Application (this fee changes into an annual renewal fee once you pass which is less than the application fee)
- ~£400 to £1000+ per year on insurance (can vary massively but at a minimum you need liability insurance which you can expect to set you back £400+ per year).
- £££’s for a multirotor which you plan to use (you are not locked to the drone you do your PfCO with but it will need to be added to the Operations Manual should you choose to change/add to your fleet after getting the permission).
So in summary you are realistically looking at a minimum of ~£2500 to £3500 to go commercial for your first year assuming you buy a £1000 Phantom to start. I justified funding this by reducing the amount I put into FPV racers!
One Small Step..
The first step after deciding I wanted to do this was to find a suitable company for training, known as an NQE. The CAA have a list of these companies in the UK, or in my case I just Googled it. I was recommended on FPV Scotland to a company called RUSTA who provide training, who so happened to provide training fairly close by to me, so I signed up via their website.
Almost immediately I was sent login details for their e-learning system and joining instructions for their course which was held in Edinburgh.
Theory Training and Exam
The theory will always be the boring part.. So I thought.. however I was pleasantly surprised how ‘into it’ I was. Perhaps because this was the first training course I had attended where I was genuinely interested in the subject.
First off was the e-learning material which consisted of about 4 hours worth of content to read through which covered the following aspects which form the backbone of the theory training:
- Meteorology – Learn all about aviation weather. This includes sources for forecasts and reports, the various types of precipitation, types of wind and how to understand the reports.
- Theory of flight – This part covers fundamental of flight, basic aerodynamic principles and how aircraft (fixed wing and rotor) control themselves in flight.
- Air Law – This is possibly the least interesting subject however the most important. It covers all the legal aspects which govern how you can and should operate a drone in the UK.
- Navigation – Basic map reading and grid referencing is covered here, but also how to read air navigation charts and check for NOTAMs and weather. Although it sounds pretty simple there is actually a lot to flight planning and navigation for drones.
- LiPo batteries – To any experienced FPV builder/racer you will already know everything they cover here pretty much. As it says on the packet, this portion covers the theory of LiPo batteries and how they should be handled (or not handled!).
Some NQE’s provide distance learning courses where after learning the online material you can sit the exam, however RUSTA provided also 3 days worth of classroom training which in my opinion is very valuable. The classroom training also covered the same topics as the e-learning and also added a section about preparation of your Ops Manual.
Exam time. The theory exam was in the format of a multiple choice test last about an hour with approximately 60 questions. A lot of it was fairly common sense, but some of it was actually tricky. If you make sure you understand the various topics of the training you should have no problems. Some questions are along the lines of ‘what does the balance lead on a lipo do?’ and others are like ‘Which CAA Publication should you refer to if you wish to operate in a congested area’ and ‘what is an adiabatic wind?’.. As I said, varying degrees of difficulty but all should be covered in the training course itself prior to the exam.
The operations manual is probably the most important part of the PfCO. This is the manual which you will be assessed against in the flight evaluation and it also becomes the manual which you submit to the CAA in your application. It documents the way you will operate as a commercial outfit covering aspects such as safety, risk assessment, planning, operations procedures, emergency procedures, technical specification and limits of your equipment. Fundamentally you will be legally obliged to operate as per your Ops Manual once you gain the PfCO.
I found this part by far the most time consuming and daunting to complete. From start to end it took me 4 weeks of pretty much bashing at it over the weekend and in the evenings during the week to complete my first draft. Luckily my day job as a Mechanical Engineer meant that I had a good familiarity with stuff such as Risk Assessment and Operation Procedures which certainly helped speed things up. For an insight as to what it includes here are a list of some of the chapters in my manual:
- Safety – Purpose and scope of the manual, safety policy and goals, training policies and handling of incidents / accidents.
- Organisation – Details of the crew which you will operate with, how the team is formed, roles within the organisation.
- Aircraft Systems – Technical specifications of each aircraft, maintenance and repair principles, operating limits.
- Operating Procedures – How you plan, carry out and complete a job. This includes step by step procedures for startup, launch, land, shutdown of the drone and what you will do in emergencies such as hardware failures. Also covers things like how you will work with your crew.
- Appendices – In here you include various bits and pieces to support your manual. I have in mine templates of my Pilot Log, Battery Log, Maintenance and Repair Log, Risk Assessment, Full Aircraft Specifications.
RUSTA ask you to have this completed as a first draft within 3 months of completing the theory part of the training. I think this is reasonable and I recommend starting it the moment you finish the theory or else you might lose the momentum to carry on. Some people I know have done it in a week! Others have taken 6 months.. It really will vary dependent on your motivation and experience.
The NQE typically provide you with a nice little template which shows you the sections and details of what should be included, but don’t underestimate how much you actually have to do to compete it. The template is what it says, only a template, you can’t simply fill in the blanks. The CAA also supply a template for the Ops manual as a guideline for what should be covered.
Once complete I sent mine into RUSTA for an initial review. I have been told it is common for a number of iterations to be carried out before they approve the manual and schedule in a flight evaluation.
Now that my Ops Manual is pretty much done, I am spending my time practicing what I preached in it, flying my Phantom and Inspire as much as possible. Doing some planning around flights, following my maintenance and inspection procedures, following my operational procedures and so on..
It may sound like a load of extra hassle but it makes it a lot more professional than simply a guy rocking up with a drone. This in my eyes will add to your ability and image as a professional operator which will only help when you finally get commercial.
Well now that I await the results of my Ops Manual review, it’s all hands on deck with the operations practice to make sure i’m ready for the Flight Evaluation.
Additionally I am progressing with the setup of the company / website / business plan / insurance / finances / commercial contacts etc. for actually going commercial. This is a whole other aspect to going commercial which has not been discussed here for the reason simply being that I am still figuring it out!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog which will be coming in the future after hopefully gaining PfCO and starting up commercially where I will cover subjects such as the Flight Evaluation, PfCO Application and the Business Aspects to going commercial.
In the mean time I could talk lots more about this subject but with almost 2000 words on this blog I am happy to just discuss further through the comments. Please leave a comment if you have any questions, happy to discuss!