Right now flying commercial drones in the United States is illegal, except for a handful of individuals who have received Federal Aviation Administration exemptions to shoot everything from movies to real estate videos.
But the lucky few with permission to fly commercial drones in U.S. skies have had to jump a serious hurdle, obtaining a pilot’s license. These drone pilots have spent thousands of dollars as they receive the type of training one needs to fly a Cessna. A square peg is getting jammed in a round hole.
The usefulness of the training is restricted, given the limited overlap in skill sets needed to safely operate a drone and a manned aircraft. But even those most frustrated with the FAA’s slow approach to integrating drones into the national airspace agree that for safety’s sake some certification process is needed. Not just anyone should be flying a drone.
The question is what does that license look like, and who should issue the licenses? An interesting example is Britain, where its Civil Aviation Authority — an equivalent to the FAA — has approved three companies to provide training on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that weigh less than 45 pounds.
Once a pilot has completed the training, he or she must provide the Civil Aviation Authority with a manual explaining how the drone will be used. Pilots also must show that they have liability insurance. Then the operators can receive actual permission, with a few stipulations. Generally they must fly in the line of sight and not within 50 meters of people or buildings, according to a CAA spokesman. Drones over 15 pounds must get clearance from air traffic control. Those under 15 pounds can operate freely in airspace that isn’t congested, such as near airports.
“My whole mission has been to bring the best lessons from manned aviation and put them into the unmanned space,” said Nick Rogers, the director of training at Sky-Futures, one of the companies approved to offer drone instruction. Sky-Futures initially developed the training to prepare its pilots for its work in the oil and natural gas industries. The training is now becoming an additional revenue stream. It’s currently in discussions with a British utility company to train some of its employees.
First Sky-Futures sends trainees a ground school manual to gain an understanding of how airspace operates and how to read an air map. Newbies are given a month at home with the manual, but experienced manned aircraft pilots are required to spend far less time with it.
Sky-Futures then puts trainees through two days of ground school and three weeks of actual flight training in Spain. Aside from much of the summer, the British group heads to Spain for the drier conditions and clear skies. Lessons take place at an approved test site. Students learn everything from how to navigate around objects to how to operate a camera on a drone safely.
All of these tasks are directly relevant to the work drone operators do in the field. The training costs about $12,000. Rogers, a former Boeing 747 pilot for British Airways, calls it a “gold-plated standard.”
The other companies Britain’s CAA has approved to offer UAV training — ResourceGroup and EuroUSC — take similar approaches.
ResourceGroup starts trainees with an online learning program. Then students spend two days in a classroom. One day is spent outside learning how to set up a flying site and actually fly. Prospective pilots then take a one-day exam to prove their skills.
Rogers and other Sky-Futures representatives visited Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, and met with FAA officials. They’re aiming to expand operations to the United States this year.