So you wanna be a drone pilot?

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Learning to fly DJI Phantom 3

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I wrote this post because so many people think it’s easy to become a drone pilot. The truth is, it is pretty easy to buy a good quality drone and take reasonable photos, even passable videos. That does not make you a commercial-grade drone operator by any stretch of the imagination. In reality, less than 20% of what we do involved flying drones, the rest of our time is spent making sure we don’t break the law, making sure we don’t lose drones through carelessness or poor maintenance, making sure we limit the risk of someone getting hurt or even just annoyed by our drone flights and processing the imagery we capture.

The processing part is the biggest piece of our work. For every hour of drone flying we do, we typically create 3-4 hours of off-site processing work. This can involve colour-grading photos and videos, editing videos, creating panoramas or other special photo effects and creating mapping products like contours maps, digital elevation models and 3D virtual models.

These are skills you don’t acquire overnight or by spending money at a drone shop. You can try to bypass the need for these skills by using an online platform like DroneDeploy or buying a processing app like Pix4D (which costs more than your drone), but in the end it’s a box full of compromises and you’ll soon be seen through by the professionals who are engaging you to fly the drone in the first place.

In fact, to do what we do we have employed the services of not just qualified pilots and experience data analysts, but highly qualified GIS Mapping specialists and even soil scientists who add to our capability. We also use survey-grade GPS equipment because most drones don’t really know where they are in space most of the time, certainly not well enough to create professional quality maps.

So here’s a no-holds barred look at what it really means to become a professional drone pilot in today’s market.

Part 1: The naked truth about the commercial UAV business

About once a week I get someone calling me wanting to know how to get into the drone business. over two years since we first started Queensland Drones, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on our journey so far and provide some insights for wannabe commercial drone operators about how this business really works.

The UAV industry has grown like crazy over the past few years, from around 200 businesses with UAV Operating Certificates when we got our first commercial drone, to several thousand or more now … and that’s not counting the hundreds or possibly thousands of “sub-2kg” operators and farmers who don’t have any kind of licence. When we first started our journey you needed both a UAV controller’s licence and a UAV operator’s licence to fly a drone commercially. But late last year CASA added two new categories that don’t require any training or licensing … people with “micro drones” under 2kg take-off weight who only need to notify CASA of where they are operating, and farmers who can now operate drones up to 25kg on their own farm without any notification as long as they are not being paid to operate them.

Needless to say this was not a popular decision and many commercial UAV operators are still very angry with CASA for what they see as a betrayal of the regulated operating environment in Australia. Some drone operators had spent well over a year and well in excess of $10,000 to become CASA-approved for commercial UAV operations, not to mention $20-30,000 and more on equipment, only to find themselves competing with part-timers who bought a $1000 drone at Harvey Norman.

In this series of six posts, I will talk about how drone licensing works in Australia, how the UAV industry works, what it really means to be a commercial drone operator, the complexities of providing the products customers really need and the complexities of choosing the right drone for the job.

Read Part 2 – The state of UAV licensing in Australia

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