A photographers guide to commercial drone operations - updated May 2018

May 02, 2018

looking west above the moller centre cambridge - aerial photographylooking west above the moller centre cambridge - aerial photographyexample of commercial drone photography and video in cambridgeshire

I’ve recently completed all the various steps to obtain CAA permission to operate a drone or UAV in CAA speak on a commercial basis. When I was looking in to the process in spring 2017 I found it difficult to find all the stages I would need to go through to actually receive the paperwork from the CAA. This is not an exhaustive guide to the route merely my view as a architectural photographer and video maker wanting to extend their services to offer clients aerial imagery. At the start of the process I had little experience with remote control models and no experience with the usual quad rotor drones.

After a number of enquiries from existing clients wanting aerial imagery I decided to begin the process of obtaining the relevant CAA permission to operate. The first thing I found was that I would need some training to prove to the CAA I was competent to operate a drone. There are loads of companies offering training and assessment services on the web but the CAA publishes a list of approved training organisations here.

I contacted a few of the companies on the CAA list and picked Cambridge UAV Academy because they were very efficient when answering my queries, they ran regular monthly courses, offered free retests and they were fairly local. They weren’t the cheapest but the cheaper firms would have required greater travel costs, hotel accommodation and some didn’t offer free retests which I thought I might need.

Around the middle of March I booked onto Cambridge UAV’s  2nd/3rd May course, at the same time and after a fair bit of research I purchased a DJI Phantom 4 Pro and a Seyma X5. When you come to take your flight test you need to show that you have at least 2 hours flight time on the drone you are being tested on. Having never flown a drone I was a bit reluctant to risk the £1500 Phantom 4 at the start so would practice on the £35 Seyma X5 toy drone in the evenings before using the Phantom at the weekends. It took me about 10 hours on the Seyma before I could get to grips with the control reversal you need to use when the drone is coming towards you.

When the course came round I joined about 20 other people at Cambridge UAV’s offices in Godmanchester and was treated to  2 full days of classroom lectures on Air Law, Meteorology, Flight planning etc. all fairly boring stuff but the instructor Alan Perrin shared enough anecdotes and real world scenarios to keep it all interesting. There was an exam on the afternoon of the second day and everyone passed.

Once you have passed the exam, have at least 2 hours flight time on type and obtained commercial drone insurance you can take the flight test. I was lucky in that I had said to Cambridge UAV that I could be flexible on dates for the flight test, this combined with a run of decent weather meant that I was able to take and pass the flight test on the 10th of May. It could easily take a couple of weeks to get a test if the weather isn’t great.

With the exam and flight test in the bag I then had to complete a Commercial Operations Manual outlining how I was going to apply the theoretical knowledge gained on the course to my real world drone operations. Covering everything from pre-flight assessment, risk assessments, drone maintenance, record keeping etc.  The idea being this is a bespoke document written to support a specific operation and a typical manual is about 60 pages long. In my case there were a couple of ways of creating this, the first was to produce the document from scratch and then forward it to Cambridge UAV for proofing and editing before CAA submission. The second option was to use Cambridge UAV’s Ops. Manual writing service, where they take your specific details and modify their template accordingly to produce your bespoke manual. Although this isn’t a free service it will save you a considerable amount of time and effort. I went for the Ops. manual writing service and soon received my draft manual from Cambridge UAV. It needed a couple of hours modification but I was able to submit it to the CAA on the 12th on May. When I submitted my application to the CAA  I used form SRG1320 and include the following,

  • Operations Manual including a photo of my UAV
  • Copies of my remote pilots qualifications from Cambridge UAV
  • Evidence of at least 2 hours flight time in the preceding 3 months
  • Copy of my commercial flight insurance
  • Payment notification form FCS1500

 

All of the above had to be submitted via email in pdf format. When I submitted it I didn’t receive any form of receipt. The CAA advise they can take up to 28 working days to process the application. I received my permission via email on the 12th of June 2017 one month after submission without any issues. This permission is valid for 12 months.

Another thing that is a bit difficult to identify at the start of the process is how much it is going to cost. In my case I have spent the following.

 

Cambridge UAV Academy Training and Flight test £1,194
Cambridge UAV Academy Ops Manual Service  £358
Commercial Drone Insurance £407
CAA Submission Fee   £173
All these include VAT where applicable TOTAL             £2,132

 

I hope that’s of use to anyone contemplating applying for permission to operate a drone commercially. There is a lot more information on the CAA site and it’s worth checking on there regularly as guidance and the regulations appear to be changing constantly.

Get in touch if you would like any Architectural aerial video or stills work throughout the UK but particularly in Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire.  

 

Renewal Process

It has been nearly a year now since I was granted my PfCO and I have just  renewed my permission with the CAA.

  • Operations Manual with any revisions, completed update log, signed and dated
  • Form SRG1320 requesting renewal and providing payment details
  • Evidence of your insurance cover

 

The fee for a renewal and initial applications has recently increased,  as of 01/04/18 it is £243.   

You can apply for renewal up to 90 days before the expiry of your existing permission, I applied on 12/04/18 and had the new permission granted on 30/04/18. I took the renewal opportunity to apply for variation as well and have added a Night Rating to my existing permission, all detailed in my revised Ops Manual.  A separate variation to the PfCO would cost £243 and require submission of the same documents as the renewal.

 

General Observations

Here are a few of my observations regarding the commercial operation of a drone in the UK from a photographers perspective which you should consider when working out your business case.

In addition to the above original set up costs I have had to purchase 6 additional batteries and an additional charger to allow me to fly uninterrupted for half a day. Typical cost of Phantom 4 Pro batteries is about £160ea.

If you place a high importance on the quality of imagery you need to working in good light with some level of direct sunlight. Good light with low winds can be a bit difficult to forecast and days with both seem fairly infrequent requiring flexible clients and lots of rebooking.

Lots of time can be wasted in looking at the feasibility of flights, quoting work and rebooking flights and you should consider how you are going to account for those costs.

Drone technology is developing very rapidly at the moment, features and performance are going up while the cost is coming down. The cycle of significant drone upgrades and releases appears to be around  18 months. As a result you should consider the repayment of any capital investment over much shorter periods than normal camera equipment.   

 


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