So, you want to be a drone pilot?

Being a drone pilot might be fun, but it's also highly challenging. We find out why there's a lot more to drones than knowing how to fly

In a world where an increasing number of jobs are becoming automated, the prospect of a fledgling industry with a lot of potential for growth is highly appealing.

Add to this the lure of spending your days controlling what is essentially a giant remote-controlled helicopter, and it is no surprise that more people than ever are ditching their day jobs to become drone pilots.

drones-ss“It’s a great growth market,” said Andrew Griffiths, managing director of Droneflight, a UK-based drone supplier, trainer and aerial services provider.

“The applications people are considering are becoming much more interesting and exciting.”

However, according to Griffiths, who was sharing tips with would-be drone business owners at this year’s SkyTech conference, an alarming number of people are jumping into drone businesses without the skills needed to make them successful.

“I feel like 60% of my time on the phone is giving people business advice,” he said. “It’s really interesting, the number of people who give you a ring to talk about spending a lot of money, but have no idea who their customers are.”

Flight control dangers

One of the issues is that many off-the-shelf drones come with flight controls that do much of the work for the pilot, giving newbies the impression that professional drone flying is much easier than it is.

“I really worry about the flight controls,” said Griffiths. “Those bits of kit are brilliant.”

He described giving people who had never used a UAV before control of a GPS-assisted machine, saying that they were able to feel like a proficient drone pilot within a short time.

However, professional operators need hundreds of hours of training and practice in order to be suitably prepared for the realities of day-to-day piloting.

Drone control by muscle memory

Whether you are performing surveys or capturing footage, a professional drone operator needs to have a significant amount of flying time behind them so that they are able to focus on the service they are providing.

The start of this is ground school, where would-be pilots learn how to operate a drone, followed by considerable practice before taking a flight test to become a qualified remote pilot.

According to Griffiths, many people starting ground school underestimate how long this process takes.

“The amount of time it takes for someone to move from that time to the flight test is longer than most people think,” he said.

Even the process of logging flight hours to improve flying ability can be a pitfall for newbies.

You need to get to the stage where the act of flying is muscle memory.

“If you are flying and trying to improve your flight skills, unless you have someone to critically assess your performance, you’re going to risk picking up bad habits,” Griffiths said.

Ultimately, if you are new to drones, you will need to log a lot of flying hours before you have the skills to work in the field professionally.

“If you are entirely new to this you need to invest the time to get very, very comfortable,” he said.

“You need to get to the stage where the act of flying is muscle memory.”

More than drone flight

While most people realise the need for training and enrol in a ground school, Griffiths was keen to stress that there is far more to professional drone operating than knowing how to fly.

For people setting themselves up as drone cameramen, this is a particular issue, as many people fail to appreciate the importance of advanced filming skills.

“A big slice of the sort of local work you might get actually requires a different skillset,” he said.

Griffiths gave the example of filming a historic property for promotional purposes; common work in the UK, where thousands of landmarks are open to the public.

“What happens a lot is that you get a job, but the first thing the client says to you is that they need pictures of the ground.”

micro-cinema-droneIn addition to the aerial filming, these types of clients typically want interior shots, including footage that makes facilities such as a cafe look appealing, he said. This can also include close-up shots of food and other details.

Such filming requires specialist skills, which cannot be learned in a matter of days, and involve careful preparation using techniques such as storyboarding, something Griffiths considers essential to any professional drone filming.

“Look at what people do to get into film and photography,” he said. “They go to art college, they spend three years training.

“Don’t think that because you’ve got a drone you can circumnavigate that.”

Making money from drones

Griffiths believes there is good money to be made from drone businesses, but warned of the dangers of unrealistic expectations from fledgling companies.

“If you don’t have preexisting skills or contacts you can leverage, you’re going to take longer to start making reasonable money,” he said.

Every single domain that you can operate a drone in will have skills that can add value

He added that it was important to have the supporting skills for a given service, rather than subcontract these, as these are the details will result in a profitable business.

“Every single domain that you can operate a drone in will have skills that can add value,” he said.

So, you want be a drone pilot? Here’s Griffith’s main advice:

“Work out how you can make money before spending money on kit. My main message is don’t get carried away: take your time.”

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