Using a drone successfully involves more than simply buying a drone. As experienced surveyors can attest, simply buying new and expensive equipment is not enough to guarantee good results. Instead, having the knowledge of what it takes to use a tool professionally is often more important for success than the tool itself. When it comes to drones, that means knowing what it takes to operate professionally.
There is a lot of confusion about what it means to operate a drone as a professional. It is more than just passing a test or being able to create a pretty orthophoto. Instead, being a professional requires a suite of responsibilities that ensures that clients, the business and the public are all treated properly. A professional drone program requires getting legally licensed, safety training, end-deliverable focused operations and insurance.
Step 1: Legal License
The first step to being a professional operator is to qualify for a “remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating” in accordance with the FAA’s Part 107 rule. This is the FAA-issued license for legally operating drones weighing less than 55 pounds for commercial purposes. Receiving a Part 107 license involves passing a two-hour multiple-choice test at one of the FAA’s many testing centers and paying a $150 fee.
The test covers airspace safety information including regulation, airspace classification, weather and basic flight operations. It is similar to the multiple-choice test required for receiving a driver’s license, in that it is a basic test to ensure good understanding of the rules of the road. However, just as with driving a car, simply understanding the rules does not make a competent and professional pilot. The FAA Part 107 test covers airspace safety rules, but does not include any hands-on test of real-world proficiency.
Step 2: Safety Training
The next step is to learn how to be a safe pilot. Before flying for clients or over any jobsites, it is essential to have a comprehensive understanding of the aircraft, its limitations and emergency procedures. Simply relying on a manufacturer’s “obstacle avoidance” or geo-fencing technology is not at all sufficient to ensuring consistent safe operations.
Safe piloting requires command of a large number of factors, including everything from how wind and temperature impact the aircraft’s performance to equipment inspection and maintenance procedures. Further, it is crucial to have well-developed emergency procedures defined and practiced to the point of being rote. We regularly see unexpected incidents happen in the real world, such as an emergency helicopter entering a project area, or an unexpected and hazardous event happening on the ground.
Training is available in many forms. Professional, hands-on training is crucial for making professional pilots. Today’s drones have become trivially easy to operate in ideal conditions, but we often see this lead to overconfidence by pilots who don’t have the training to recognize risks before they develop into hazards. Further, to maximize benefit to the business, training should be focused specifically on survey operations, rather than being generic and unfocused. In-person, hands-on training from a vetted provider is required by the most reputable insurers for drone liability coverage, but does not have to be a burden.
Step 3: Deliverable-Focused Operations
A safe, legal pilot will not automatically create high-quality data and deliverables. Unprofessional pilots spend much more time than necessary in the field and collect too much or the wrong type of photos, only to wind up with nothing more than, at best, a pretty orthophoto. Instead, professional pilots have clear mission goals, and clear procedures for achieving those goals.
Well-defined operating procedures start with a defined goal of the deliverable that needs to be produced at the end of the project, then works backward from there to ensure the right data is collected, efficiently and correctly. For surveyors, this generally means starting with a goal of an orthophoto, topographic map, and/or planimetrics, along with a required level of accuracy for that project. Then, the mission is planned to best achieve those specific goals. Flying a drone without a mission plan is like driving a work truck without a destination, and hoping to get somewhere useful. A professional pilot will know exactly what data they need for the mission at hand, as well as how to get that data safely, responsibly and legally.
Step 4: Insurance
While insurance is not a legal requirement (at least not yet), it will often be required by clients and is critical for being a responsible operator. Drone insurance usually covers two components: the aircraft itself (hull insurance) and the cost of anything the aircraft might damage (liability insurance). Hull insurance covers your business from loss of valuable hardware, while liability covers the cost of any damages to people or ground equipment in case of an incident. Though not commonly known, nearly all standard business liability insurance policies do not cover drone operations due to a standard “aviation exclusion,” so special coverage for drone operations is required. There are several options available for insurance, from bare-bones hourly coverage, to high-quality comprehensive policies. In general, clients require comprehensive policies from a reputable provider. Fortunately, high-quality insurance costs considerably less if a firm and its pilots have been trained by a vetted provider.
Being a professional drone pilot involves being licensed, knowing how to fly safely, having a defined and deliverable-oriented operation, and being properly insured. Skipping any one of these things could open you or your business to serious risk.