Part 1 Drone Employment – A short history

Are you looking to get started in a career as a Drone Pilot? If so, you may have many questions such as What qualifications will I need?  How much can I earn?  Who can I work for? Hopefully by reading this paper you may get a better understanding of the industry and where it’s likely to go, but more importantly you should discover what are the best steps to take to achieve your goal of becoming a Drone Pilot.

As most people are aware, Unmanned Aerial Systems or Drones have been around for a while, but they didn’t really capture much attention until about 2013/14. Now there is not a day that goes past when a drone story doesn’t feature in the media in some form or another. I got into the drone industry in 2014 having already been in the larger unmanned space since 2008. The changes in trends with regards to training, regulation and more importantly people have been quite dramatic. I get asked a lot about what jobs are available in the industry and how much do they pay? It’s not an easy question to answer. However, this paper should detail how the industry has morphed in the last 5 years and how it still remains an exciting and prosperous prospect.

When I left the RAF in 2014, I could see a huge future in operating as a commercial drone pilot. The industry was just starting to gain traction with technological and regulatory advances and there was generally a ‘good vibe’ surrounding drones. Overall the prospects looked positive suggesting that this was the next big thing. Could this be true? Before making any life changing decisions I did a bit of digging around and looked into possibilities in the UK and beyond. I was sat on the fence for a while until, whilst waiting for a flight in El Paso, I read an article in Time magazine that stated that, next to 3D printing, unmanned technology will be the biggest growth market in the next decade.

So, what did I do to take the next step? Prior to 2014 and whilst serving in the USA with the RAF, I bought a simple DJI Phantom 1 and learnt how to fly it whilst I was stood on a bleak barren desert in the American South West. It became apparent, straight away, the benefits that these aircraft could bring to a whole swath of industries. This reinforced my thought process and was one of the most important catalysts that made me pursue an alternative career. After 22 years, doing a job I loved, I came to the conclusion that nothing lasts forever, and the timing all seemed to make sense. I came up with a plan, took a deep breath and pulled the trigger to leave the RAF.

The plan obviously involved many steps, the glaringly huge one was relocating my family back to the UK. When that mammoth task had been accomplished, I could start on the path to this new exciting career choice. The first thing was to get myself trained and therefore legal.

Back in 2014 there was only 2 NQE (National Qualified Entities) accredited by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) that were authorised to provide the regulatory training in the UK. I chose one that could fit me in and booked on for the PFAW course (Permission for Aerial Work- now renamed to PFCO- permission for commercial operation) so I could get permission to fly commercially in the UK’s airspace. I won’t mention who I did the course with but, coming from a training and instructional background with both the RAF and USAF (United States Air Force), I found that the training could be vastly improved, certainly with regard to content. Anyway I passed the theoretical element and started the task of writing my own Operations Manual which is one of the mandatory requirements for a PFAW.

It was at this time, thanks to LinkedIn, through a connection of a connection I was introduced to a very large multinational corporation who needed assistance in creating a training course specifically for NQE status. This was all very fortuitous as this was a project that I could get my teeth into, was passionate about and could use my experience as an instructor to shape a training product that would better benefit this fledgling industry. Unwittingly a roadmap had been created that would take me away from the operating side of commercial UAV’s and put me firmly back into the training arena. Arguably, this is where I was better suited as I had been an instructor for years and I genuinely enjoyed it. It’s worthwhile pointing out that in September 2014, not only was there only 2 NQE’s but, there was only little over 200 companies that had been granted a permission. Those figures will become more relevant later on in this story.

Over the period of several months we had put together a Stella team and came up with a syllabus that, we all believed, would serve individuals and companies better and would more appropriately prepare them for getting started in the unmanned world. In March 2015 we went live and RUSTA was officially launched.

As Head of The Academy I had direct insight to who was getting trained on our nationwide courses. It didn’t take a great deal of analysis to ascertain the demographic we were training. In the first 6 months or so the courses were overwhelmingly populated by photographers and moviemakers who wanted to add aerial photography to their portfolios. The vast majority were sole traders or ‘one-man bands’, who could command a high daily rate using their existing networks. The individuals who were starting afresh with no previous background in this niche area faced their own problems. The majority of these ab initios were clearly talented, had good showreels that they had edited themselves and were incredibly enthusiastic, but they lacked the ‘in’. Although some persevered and went on to work on some very interesting projects a large proportion soon discovered that their dreams of flying and shooting on big Hollywood productions might be a tadge ambitious. That said nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing a company or individual RUSTA have trained in the end credits of a TV show or film. It happens more often than you think!

The predominance of filmmakers attending the course started to shift at the end of the summer in 2015 towards other industries. Agriculture representatives started to show an interest as well as big surveying and building companies. It was around this time that we got our first contract to train elements of the Police Forces. At the end of 2015 the industry (certainly in the training sphere) was booming. Our courses were always of a healthy size and the students were coming from more varied and professional backgrounds. It wasn’t just the number of trained operators that was on the rise, the number of NQE’s was also expanding quite rapidly.

The industry was showing the classic characteristics of the Gartner Hype Cycle (see figure 1.)[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”6977″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” css=”.vc_custom_1575454372460{margin-top: 50px !important;margin-bottom: 50px !important;border-top-width: 50px !important;border-bottom-width: 50px !important;padding-top: 50px !important;padding-bottom: 50px !important;}”][vc_column_text]Figure 1. Gartner Hype Cycle

 This phenomenon wasn’t just obvious to us at RUSTA and a lot of industry commenters posted their findings at the same time on social media. At the end of 2015 we were three quarters up of the first transcension and, little did we know, were heading at a rather fast rate of knots towards the Peak of Inflated Expectation. NQE numbers continued to increase.

This increase in NQE’s was facilitating the hundreds of pilots who wanted a permission from the CAA. However, this rapid rise in training providers ultimately lead to a price war and prices started to drop to attract more business in this cluttered and saturated environment.

We decided mid 2016 that we had to change our strategy. As we were a large defence orientated company our target customer was recalibrated towards business to business clients. This was focused predominantly around Police and Defence organisations, but we still kept a toe in the business to customer market and continued to run domestic courses three times a month nationwide. This still provided me a good indication of the trends in the market and again I noticed another quite significant change. The sole traders, ab initios, one-man band whatever you wanted to label them were being overtaken. Larger companies, who had historically subcontracted any aerial requirements, were discovering the value of training their own existing workforce and therefore gaining them their own Permission from the CAA. These companies had created their own internal capability that could react and deploy quite dynamically and more importantly, efficiently.

We have trained individuals from dozens of larger multinational corporations who, for the most part, are better funded, better resourced and ultimately pay better. It can be argued that these individuals are not as motivated as they haven’t taken the risks and haven’t invested as much as a sole trader. In my experience that’s not the case, the overwhelming majority are excited about being trained in a new technology and there is a general healthy competitiveness streak amongst individuals from the same companies. It’s important to stress that we still train many sole traders and individuals, but many are generally using unmanned technology in small doses to support their existing businesses.

So, with all the above twists and turns where are we at the end of 2019?

The CAA has accredited 41 Full NQE’s and 3 restricted NQE’s and, according to the CAA website, there is 5557 companies/entities/individuals with a PFCO. This is an 1950% increase in NQE’s and a roughly a 2679% increase in operators holding a PFCO from 2014. Quite a considerable increase!

One new trend is now emerging, which is encouraging and, in my opinion, certainly puts us on the slope of enlightenment. We are starting to see larger companies actively employing professional qualified drone pilots. This is clearly different from contracting from the odd job and different from training existing employees. One such entity is a well-known internet company that is exploring deliveries by drone, I’m sure you all know who I’m referring to. They were recently advertising for experienced operators and support staff. I quick search on for Drone Pilots produces some interesting and welcoming results with some larger companies. The salaries are not implicitly stated but ‘competitive’ seems to appear a lot when the salary range line appears. This is great news if you are wanting to fly drones for a living as an employee, but in this context what does competitive look like?

I did a bit of research on the question of pay and stumbled across the National Careers Service website. There is now quite a detailed page on Drone Pilot where (as of today) the average salary now states that pilots can make up to £65k a year, wow! That is encouraging. The high end did stipulate that that was for experienced pilots but still that’s a good salary whichever way you look at it.

Another interesting development will come next year with the eventual introduction of the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) drone regulation into the UK framework. There is too much in these new regulations to mention in this paper but there are some salient items that I will touch on. Firstly, there will be the introduction of a Remote Pilots License (RPL) which could replace certain elements of the permission system currently employed by the CAA. This would therefore allow pilots who hold the qualification to operate in other EASA states as presently the permission system is just recognised in the UK. Also, the NQE’s will eventually migrate over to a European Universal Recognised Entity (RE) system. This may offer certain existing NQE’s opportunities further afield which is good news for UK PLC.

So, in conclusion, the last 5 years has seen many changes in how drone pilots are being employed. As with all new technological breakthroughs, it’s peaked and troughed and, in my opinion, is now in the process of realigning itself so it becomes sustainable and productive. Regulation has played a key part and will continue to do so, especially when the EASA regulations come into force next year. As an indication of regulatory changes our Aide Memoir, which each candidate receives, is currently sat on Edition 16, that’s minor and major changes accrued over 4 years and 6 months.

At RUSTA we have remined flexible to still provide the best training solution to all the various parties looking at getting started in this industry. We offer three courses a month around the UK with various options to make it easier for candidates to get all they need, such as an optional Operational manual workshop and a fast track flight test option. We also offer closed courses to businesses and entities that want their operators trained at their premises with more emphasis on their particular industry. We offer an optional NVQ qualification in Drone Operations at both level 3 and level 4 and a continuation service known as the RUSTA Alumni to continually assist our clients in their own operations as they evolve and grow.

So, in conclusion if you were to ask me the question today, Is there a career in drone operating? I would answer with absolutely there is, I’ve felt privileged being in the position I have been, sat watching and hopefully reacting to all the change that have been happening around me. Of course, these are only my views, and many may argue about my pessimism but as with anything new you will always get your critics and sceptics. Therefore, it’s vital to do your research, explore the market and perhaps get some advice from people like ourselves at RUSTA.

Contact RUSTA on