Becoming a commercial UAV operator

UAV agricultural surveys

How (not) to make money with drones

If you’ve been browsing our website, you’ll have read that we’re currently working through the process to become a certified commercial operator of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones). You might be wondering why that’s a process and not just something we apply for. So here’s the story.

Flying drones for fun is one thing and there’s a lot going for it. There’s a great network of recreational drone pilots out there who will answer most of your questions about recreational drone use and help you understand what’s happening when things don’t work as you expect (start with the DJI Owners of Australia group on Facebook). You can take fabulous photos and videos with off-the-shelf drones like the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced, and you can even learn how to process those images and videos into beautiful commercial-quality products that people will want to pay for.

But the moment you seek or receive payment of any kind for the photos or images you produce, you fall foul of the law. In Australia, and in most other countries, you need to hold a commercial UAV Pilot’s licence to use a drone for any commercial purpose – and that includes filming your own house and giving the footage to the real estate agent to help sell it! If you gain any kind of financial advantage from using your drone, you are using it for commercial purposes and need to be licensed.

If you use your drone for commercial purposes without commercial certification (a UAV Operator’s Certificate) you could be fined up to $8500 for each flight you took to make those videos or photos. If someone uses your video or photos for commercial purposes (e.g. a real estate agent or wedding photographer), they can also be fined even if you were not paid for them.

As a recreational pilot you also operate within a very strict regulatory environment that means:

  • You cannot fly above 400 feet (120 metres) – with some small exceptions in more remote areas
  • You cannot fly within 3 nautical miles (5 km) of an aerodrome, airport or helicopter landing site
  • You cannot fly beyond visual line of site – which in practice usually means about 300 metres
  • You cannot fly using the screen of your tablet controller – even though these often have real time video
  • You cannot fly after dark – between last light of the day and first light of the day
  • You cannot fly over populous areas – not well defined, but usually means where people live
  • You cannot fly over people or crowds – e.g. a sporting event or at the beach
  • You cannot fly within 30 metres of other people who are not part of your flight planning (onlookers)
  • You cannot fly on private property without the written permission of the land owner
  • Blah blah blah …

Again, each breach of these rules potentially exposes the operator to a fine of $8500 per offence.

There are some exceptions to these rules and even operating inside them there’s a lot you can still do. I learned my UAV flying skills in an open park reserve where people rarely go, where I could fly a couple of hundred metres in any direction without crossing into another person’s property, and where if I made a mistake I would generally only be hurting myself and my drone. I learned my aerial photography and videography skills in public parks early in the morning, before most people are up and about. I honed my skills over lakes and mountains, forests and farms, staying well away from people and focusing on nature. But I soon found I wanted to do more, which meant getting licensed.

The licensing authority for UAVs in Australia is CASA (the Civil Aviation Safety Authority) who also license and regulate recreational and commercial pilots, so the basis for their licensing model is that used to license commercial light aircraft pilots. In fact it used to be the case that UAV operator’s sat pretty much the same exam as a person seeking a Private Pilot’s Licence, which also meant you had to learn a whole lot that wasn’t relevant to flying UAVs. This is only just beginning to change now.

In February 2016 I will complete a 5-day on-site training course with AORPA, a Brisbane-based training company approved by CASA to train and test intending commercial UAV pilots. There are many companies around Australia who are approved to deliver this training. I chose AORPA because they are local and had a course scheduled at a time when I could get leave from my day job, but there were lots of training providers to choose from.

At the end of this 5-day training course, which includes flight theory, flight simulation and actual flight training with a UAV, the training company will test me and hopefully recommend to CASA that I be issued with a Remote Pilot Certificate (RPC) which means I will be allowed to work for a company that is certified for commercial drone use. At the same time, I will be trained and tested for an Aircraft Radio Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency (AORCP), which will allow me to use an aviation radio to speak to aircraft pilots and control tower staff.

The RPC licensing process including AORCP training and buying an aviation radio will cost between $2500-5000.

The second stage of becoming certified to use my drone for commercial purposes is obtaining a UAV Operator’s Certificate (UOC). This is a license issued to a business operating UAVs for commercial purposes. The process to obtain a UOC is long and complex, as the image below (courtesy of RPAS Training and Solutions) shows.

UOC-UAV-Operator-Certificate-Drone

The UOC assessment process makes sure that as a commercial UAV operator:

  • your business has proper documented flight management and risk assessment procedures,
  • you only employ qualified and experienced UAV pilots
  • you have manufacturer’s training to properly maintain and service the UAVs you operate
  • you have comprehensive safety and maintenance procedures
  • you have adequate and appropriate public liability insurance

This process includes a visit from a CASA inspector who checks all your procedures and manuals, tests your “chief pilot” and makes sure everything is properly in place for you to operate as a commercial UAV business. If CASA is satisfied that you have everything in place, they will process your UOC application.

The UOC itself has no license cost, but CASA charge the business for their time and expenses in assessing the application, including on-site assessment, which typically runs to $3-5000 in total and can take 3-6 months to complete.

So by the time a UAV enthusiast makes the transition from recreational drone pilot to commercial drone pilot, their financial investment in the process is around $5-10,000 plus equipment and their time investment can be anything from 3-12 months. But that’s far from the end of the investment.

Publishing a photo or video taken with your drone to Facebook, YouTube, etc. is one thing, but to process commercial grade aerial photos and videos to a standard required by advertising agencies, publishers and the like you need high quality post-processing capabilities.

Processing aerial photos requires a high-end commercial software package like Photoshop or Light Room. Processing and editing high definition aerial video requires a sophisticated video editing suite like Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro. The typical investment for commercial standard photo and video processing software tools is around $2-3000.

While your PC can probably turn UAV video into YouTube clips, that’s not what commercial clients are typically wanting. They want edited HD video with titles, transitions and much more. It’s unlikely your home office PC will be suitable for post-processing HD video sequences as this typically requires a high-end graphics PC or Mac costing $5-6,000.

The total investment for a commercial aerial photography business is, by this stage, approaching $20,000 and we still have not factored in the cost of equipment. Although our DJI Phantom 3 Professional UAV “only” cost $2200, by the time we kitted it out with spare batteries, spare propellors, lens filters, gimbal protector and a padded carry case we had spent more than $3000.

And we still only have one drone! While the Phantom 3 Pro is a reliable and high quality piece of equipment, there will be some jobs it’s not suitable for and there will be times when it needs to be sent away for repairs or service (as happened to us in January 2016). Customers can’t wait 4-6 weeks for your drone to come back from being repaired!

This means we need to buy a second UAV platform and common sense says it should be something with different capabilities to the Phantom 3 Pro so it’s not just sitting on a shelf gathering dust in case of emergency. Logic tells me that our second UAV platform should be capable of recording high quality cinematic video, ground mapping (high end orthographic and 3D modelling imagery) and infrared photography (wildlife searches, crop analysis, etc). Our investment in this second platform is likely to be $10-20,000.

So there you have it … if you want to be commercial UAV operator you need patience, planning and deep pockets! In that respect it’s just like any other aviation business.

Your comments are most welcome. We would love to hear about your experiences and your thoughts on this article.