How to become a drone pilot?

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The boom in the drones sector has provided an opportunity for many professionals. Piloting this kind of aircraft is one of the fashionable professions. However, a series of legal difficulties still need to be resolved, and a common framework needs to be created to enable the profession to be practised in any country.

A drone with an integrated GPS that is capable of finding and photographing waste and other residues. This is the environmental monitoring prototype designed by the topographical engineer Andrés Pérez, and which in 2017 won the III Competition for Innovative Ideas, organised by the company 3M’s foundation. Pérez, an aficionado of remote-controlled vehicles, began to train himself in the field of drones in 2014 and now combines his work as an engineer with that of being an RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) aircraft pilot and designer.

His is not an isolated case: job prospects in this sector are reaching great heights. The European Commission estimates that this sector will generate around 100,000 jobs (direct and indirect) by 2035 in the European Union. These statistics represent an opportunity for many professionals.

Although the first drone prototypes date back to the end of the First World War, “it wasn’t until the boom of mobile phones, and the development of cameras, sensors, radars and small GPS on an industrial scale that they became accessible for the civilian market”, explains Pérez, who adds, “Now, for €1,600 you can purchase a professional drone that does the work that previously a helicopter would do for €6,000 per hour”.

Their applications are numerous and include the transport of merchandise, surveillance in specific areas, monitoring waste and fires, broadcasting events, filming movies and building and monitoring traffic. These all pursue the objective of “doing jobs more quickly, more safely and for less money”, notes Pérez.

Despite the development of the technology associated with drones, there are still doubts surrounding the profession of being a pilot of these aircraft. As Vicente Montoya, instructor at the drone pilot school Global Training & Aviation indicates, the main obstacles to exercising this occupation derive from the rigidity of legislation. These difficulties are increasing, because there is no common regulatory framework for all countries: each one has its own rules.

Furthermore, in the majority of cases the rules are fairly conservative. “The civilian drones sector is a very innovative field that is in full development, and despite the trend being towards increasingly flexible rules, protection should be prioritised”, commented the State Aviation Safety Agency (AESA). Another challenge is that of being able to standardise pilot certifications, so that professionals can work anywhere.

Steps for turning your hobby into a career

Do I need a licence to fly my drone?

If you are going to use it for fun or sport, you do not need a licence. Things change when you are going to charge for it. This is the case in Spain and the United Kingdom, among others, who have made it obligatory to obtain a professional pilot’s licence, valid for devices up to 25 kilos for the former, and 20 kilos for the latter.

In order to get the licence, some countries have a required minimum age – 18 years, in the case of Spain, and 16 in the USA – and it is necessary to pass a strict medical exam, which is the same as for aeroplane pilots. In other cases, such as in Brazil, it is not necessary to be an official pilot to fly an RPAS, although you do need permission from the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC) when you want to go above 400 feet (192 metres).

Only authorised driving schools

The process for becoming a pilot is similar to getting your driving licence: you need to pass a theory exam and a practical one. In order to do this, you can only attend official air schools in each country. For example, in Spain they are called ATO Centres (Approved Training Organization), and in the United Kingdom they are those approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

On these courses you will learn about aeronautics, meteorology, the kinds of flight and the different air spaces. For the practical part, you need to choose the type of aircraft, and then you will learn its components and how to fly it. The price of the whole course varies widely: between €600-€800 in Spain, and £1,400 (almost €1,600) in the UK.

One licence for each drone

In most countries, once you have passed the tests, you will receive official approval as a pilot from the national aeronautical authority. But it only allows you to fly one specific type of drone. If you want to use a different model professionally, you have to redo the practical part of the exam with the new aircraft. “The justification is that there is a great diversity of drones, and the way in which they are piloted can be very different”, explains Pérez.

Operator or pilot?

Drone operators work like companies that contract drone pilots. In order to become an operator, first you have to have the pilot’s licence, and then you need to present the relevant documentation to the aeronautical authority so that they can include you in their database of authorised operators.

Request authorisation before each flight

Before using a drone, it is necessary to request permission from the aeronautical authority of the country where it is going to be flown. Among other things, you need to present the pilot’s licence, the kind of drone, flight data, the reason, the location, public liability insurance and a safety assessment, in which the chances of an accident are assessed and so are the measures that will be taken to minimise them.

Ultimately, this is a career with increasing job opportunities, and one which can be accessed with an initial investment that is not too onerous if compared with what it costs to become a plane pilot – $40,000-$100,000 in the USA. And, although the heterogeneity of regulations makes it more difficult to exercise the profession anywhere in the world, the future trend is towards establishing standardisation between countries.

By Elvira del Pozo

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