My Journey to getting UK CAA Permission for Commercial Operations

I first got into drones the moment I discovered the Hubsan X4 Mini Quad Copter. I’d been recommended it by a friend, who was already making his way up the drone ladder. Once you start, it’s a slippery - but very enjoyable slope to getting bigger and better drones!

The Hubsan's life came to an abrupt end when I was demonstrating my skills to a friend. She thought it looked easy and convinced me to hand over the controls. It was in pieces in seconds and that was the end of that. For a while I dreamed of replacing the little quad copter with something far bigger.

Fast forward 2 years and I was sat in a company meeting listening to the lead creative director’s plans to introduce aerial work into the video projects (which I edit). This was my chance to up my game! I told him about my plans to buy a drone and he told me to get a licence too. It all seemed a bit much, but with small steps I made it a reality.

Phantom 4

And so, after a bit of research I bought the Phantom 4. I read the manual whilst waiting for it to arrive in post. With memories of the Hubsan crashing into a chimney pot I wanted to get my head around the Phantom before getting it airborne. I needn't have been so concerned though - This thing flies itself.

Now I was half way there! - But I still needed to get my permission to fly it commercially - (legally). I wasn’t keen to get the drone confiscated so it was time to learn the rules.

I researched the different training companies and the one that stood out to me was one called Uplift Drone Training. I first got in touch in September 2016 but didn’t pluck up the courage to actually register for while. It’s the cost that put me off, but if you know you’re going to see it through, it’s a worthwhile investment.

The closest ground course for me was in High Wycombe and takes 2 days - so I needed to find time off, funds to cover the course and also spend time practicing.

In total, from buying a drone to getting the Permission, it took me about a year, but if you’re in a hurry, this could all be done in the space of a couple of months.

Here’s 7 steps to getting your drone business up and running…

Step 1 - Choosing your drone
This is the fun bit! Read lots, watch YouTube videos and go for something relatively new, ideally a DJI, with a camera that fits your needs. I love the Phantom and highly recommend it. Once you know which drone you’re getting you can download the manual from DJI and get your head into what it can do.

Step 2 - Register with a Training Company
Consider reviews, price and distance from where you live. Uplift was very convenient as I was travelling from London. As soon as you’ve signed up for the course, you get sent all the course materials you need to get started. I recommend booking at least 2-3 weeks in advance to give yourself time to familiarise yourself with the course materials, but if you're in a hurry, you could jump straight in. You will learn everything on the course, it's just helpful to have a headsup.

Step 3 - Attending the Ground Course
A typical course involves 2 days in a classroom where you learn all of the important laws, how to properly plan flights, mitigate problems, read maps and much more. If you haven’t flown a drone before this or fancy trying out a few different drones before making a purchase, you can book a third day where you’ll be in the field flying drones with a qualified instructor. I skipped this extra day as I already had my drone, which saved me a bit of money.

The ground course was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. The amount you learn and the way it was taught was very impressive. Your brain will swell! I made a lot of notes along the way and grilled myself on the mock exam questions.

In the afternoon of the second day you take the exam. You need to get 80% to pass. It seems like a lot, but it’s very doable. After learning so much on the course you should be in a strong position to pass it. I scored 99%. I wavered on one question about the weather. It never was my strong point! It took me about 20 minutes to complete and within 5 minutes I had the thumbs up.

Step 4 - Writing the Operations Manual
So now it’s time to write the all-important document that will set out your safety plan, customised exactly to your model of drone and how you plan to operate your commercial business. Most importantly - how to do it all safely. Safety is the key word when it comes to dealing with the CAA. The good thing about the Operations Manual is that there is no immediate deadline. It’s up to you how long you spend on it. Of course it will delay your Permission coming through as you can’t book your flight test until it’s done, and you might also forget some of the things you pick up on the ground course, so it’s best to start as soon as possible.

First off, you’ll get a template from your training provider, who will give you detailed guidance on what to write in each section. The tricky part is writing it in your own words. All the technical info you’ll need about the drone (e.g. the battery type, drone weight and maximum speeds) are all available online. You also need to explain how you will keep logs and records for the drone for things like pilot flying time, aircraft maintenance, battery logs etc. I can recommend either a simple excel spreadsheet (or google drive spreadsheet), or an app like DroneLogbook.

I found it useful to read other people’s operations manuals online (if you can find them - they’re usually kept private and closely guarded… you’ll understand when you’ve written yours!), but be careful not to copy/paste as it can easily be spotted and won’t make sense if someone else’s ops manual is for a different drone model.

Once completed, send it over to the training provider who will read through and give you some notes on where it might need changing. When it’s signed off you’re ready to book your flight test.

Step 5 - Preparing for the Flight Test
This is (in my opinion) the best part as you have a good excuse to go out fly the drone lots. The test itself takes plenty of practice, so allocate yourself time to do that when you do book your test.

Like the Ops Manual, the test is all about safety, so when you’re practicing in your local park or field, make sure you get used to treating everything like a job. Be safely in control at all times.

As part of your Ops Manual, you will end up making detailed checklists of how you set up the drone before a flight, how you land safely and also what you might do in an emergency situation. My advice is once your Ops Manual is signed off, print these checklists out (laminating is best), and start using them when you’re out flying your drone.

The trickiest thing you’ll find in the flight test is flying in ATTI mode. If you’re new to this mode, it’s where the GPS functions are switched off. The GPS not only allows the drone to fly itself back at the switch of a button, but it’s actually keeping the drone steady, hovering when you take your hands off the controls - even in fairly strong winds. There are some great videos on YouTube which show how the GPS functions keep the drone operating smoothly, and also good videos on using ATTI mode too.

So why would you choose to fly ATTI if it could fly off in the wind? Simply put, it will make you a better pilot, can potentially get you much smoother video shots and you can also fly inside buildings (where there’s space)! Once you get the hang of it, ATTI is a lot of fun, and if you do get into trouble, just switch back to GPS mode and the drone will stop in its tracks.

There’s a great training video provided by Uplift which details in simple language exactly what is expected on the flight test and I downloaded this to my phone to follow whilst I was out practicing. These include flying in a square, around cones. (pop-up cones are a useful purchase by the way). I have a full list of kit at the bottom of this blog.

Practice flying a square in GPS mode, keeping the flight straight and steady. Do a figure of 8, this is pretty straight forward stuff. Fly the square in ATTI mode. Once you get confident doing these things you’ll be fine on the test.

Before you do the test, there’s a little bit of paperwork to do which will give you a taste of the kind of forms you’ll fill out on commercial jobs. First, check the satellite images of the field you’re going to be conducting the flight test in, see what airspace it’s in and whether there are any immediate hazards - roads, schools, electricity pylons, airports…

It’s unlikely your training provider will put you in any real risk, but they will want to see you have safely assessed everything. Mention roads/buildings nearby and perhaps note down the direction of the nearest airport - just in case you are (very) unfortunate and have a fly away! You can do 90% of your planning from home on the internet.

Remember, it’s mainly about being prepared for worst case scenarios than actually worrying about it happening.

You will need to book insurance before the flight test. Many companies offer a 1 month, or a 1 day insurance policy which are easy to set up and not too expensive. You can usually take this cost off your full policy if you choose to continue with the same provider.

Step 6 - The Flight Assessment
When the day comes, you’ll probably be a bit nervous, but you needn't be. If you have done your practice and completed your paperwork, it’s just about showing the instructor you can fly safely.

When you arrive at the flight test ground (likely a muddy field), you’ll get a debrief from the examiner who will also ask you a few questions about the site, the airspace etc. Once that’s done you’ll use your checklists to set up the drone safely. You basically need to treat the test as if it’s a real world commercial job with a client.

The best thing to do is stay calm, take things one step at a time, and slowly. You won’t be penalised for flying too slow, but you will for flying too fast. Don't look at the screen too much, keep your eye on the drone, it’s much easier to keep things steady. I used my live-feed occasionally to check I was facing in the right direction and occasionally to check I was over a cone, or over the landing pad.

The instructor will run through exactly what you need to do and ask you to re-do something if it doesn’t go smoothly first time. If there’s wind you will need to compensate a little bit in ATTI mode to stop it drifting away, and the examiner will ask you what you’d do in an emergency situation (this is where learning the checklists comes in handy)!

Once you’ve completed all of the steps, you’ll just need to manually land. DJI have a useful feature called Tripod Mode, which helps you make a smooth landing (if you remember to switch it to this).

You will find out whether you passed or not straight away (if you hadn’t already guessed). I was relieved to pass and was told that my flying skills were great. The practice had obviously paid off.

My advice for the test:
•Laminate your landing/take-off/emergency checklists - it makes them easier to keep safe.
•Talk through the checklists out loud when setting up.
•Bring all of your safety equipment and flight gear, even if you won’t need them (landing-pad and cones were already set up beforehand by the instructor).
•Turn the controller on before you turn the drone on (apparently the drone can take off on it’s own and you need the controller switched on, ready for action. I learnt this on the day)!
•When in ATTI mode, don’t look at the screen too much, your drone will drift off course whilst you’re not looking at it.
•Go slow and steady!

Step 7 - The PfAW (CAA) Application Form
This is a fairly straightforward application form supplied through the trainer. You will need to have your signed-off Ops Manual, Insurance Policy, a document showing that you’ve flown at least 2 hours in the last 3 months and the ground course and flight test certificates. Once these are all ready, it’s emailed through to the CAA with the processing fee and the rest is in their hands. It takes roughly 30 days to get the Permission back.

So that’s it! Good luck and enjoy the journey!

Feel free to drop me a line if there’s any specific questions you might have and I can try and help.

Here’s a list of all the drone gear I’ve accumulated in the build-up to the test with links. (The items in bold are worth having on the flight test).

  • ND Filter - I went for a mid-range ND16, for bright sunny days. Not necessary for the test.
  • iPad Sunshade - (I used this on my test as it was quite a bright day).
  • Helipad - Fast fold, pop-out landing pad. Very convenient and useful for sandy/grassy spots.
  • Extra Battery - You will need to have 2 batteries on the test - (in case things take time).
  • DJI charging hub - useful if you have 2 or more batteries to charge/discharge.
  • USB cable - it’s worth keeping a spare in the drone box. This is a neater shortened version.
  • LIPO Bags - Get a couple of these for transporting batteries - especially when travelling abroad.
  • First Aid Kit - Necessary for flight test, but also useful for future commercial jobs.
  • Motor Protector Caps - inexpensive way to keep the motors protected whilst in transport.
  • Pop-up cones - Great for practicing but also on commercial jobs to keep people away.
  • Anemometer - Simple tool for checking wind speeds.
  • Fire Blanket - Necessary for the test and worth having for future flights.
  • Hi-Vis Jacket - Necessary for the test I think, and for future commercial jobs.
  • Extra Propellers - After a year I changed mine for wear and tear.