Flying a drone: Everything you need to know about staying legal

Anyone using a drone for commercial purposes must get the correct accreditation or risk heavy penalties under current legislation.

This includes farmers who use drones within 150m of a residential area or who share imagery with third parties such as an agronomist, even if operating on their own land.

See also: A grower’s guide to buying a drone

Technically there is no such thing as a drone license. The required accreditation is a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO).

It is also quite expensive averaging £1,000 for the course and a further £247 to register with the regulatory body, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). An annual renewal fee of £185 is required to retain your PfCO.

Four elements of a PfCO

  1. The theoretical competency course: Varies from a one- to three-day course and usually has a single exam at the end.
  2. The operational assessment: An invigilated test of your practical flying skill.
  3. The operations manual: A document required by the CAA that demonstrates a pilot’s ability to operate a drone safely and within the law.
  4. Application to the CAA: Final submission of all required documentation and proof of insurance. Accreditation should be received within 30 days.

Failure to abide by the current UK drone legislation can carry an unlimited maximum fine as well as a five-year prison sentence for serious infringements of the law.

More importantly, the qualification equips pilots to fly drones safely and responsibly to protect themselves and others airspace users.

This guide is based on the PfCO course by the Aerial Academy and taken in Norwich. Other courses may vary slightly, but all must cover the same CAA syllabus.

Drone flying against blue sky

© Valentin Wolf/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

Why get a PfCO?

  • It is a legal requirement for commercial drone operations, with regulations only likely to get stricter due to a spate of recent near-misses
  • Operators without a PfCO run the risk of large fines or prison time if rules are broken
  • Enables pilots to fly in congested areas where others cannot
  • Equips pilots to operate a drone safely in order to protect themselves and other air users
  • Acts as a guarantee that operators are capable and safe pilots

1. Find an approved school

There are about 25 CAA-approved drone training schools across the UK. We opted for the Aerial Academy– www.dronetraining.co.uk – as it operated from a number of sites that were convenient and had excellent reviews. It also has a specialist in agricultural drone use and were based on a farm.

Course completion also gets you access to a closed Facebook group of 270 other certified drone operators.

The average price for a two-day course ranges from £750-£1,000. For that, you will receive expert tutelage from experienced drone operators and one-to-one guidance right the way through the applications process.

Top tips

  • Go local. Most courses are two or three days, so you can save money by commuting from home.
  • Check the reviews. Make sure your course operator is an established name with plenty of experience.
  • Correct accreditation. It is essential courses are accredited by the CAA. The more the regulator trusts the course, the quicker applications will be processed.
  • Additional extras? Some courses offer extra support with the final application process or provide free insurance for the practical assessment.

2. Pre-course preparation

Buying or getting familiar with a drone is advisable at this stage.

The course is an intensive crash course, covering a wide variety of subjects in a relatively short space of time. Most of the modules require a common-sense approach, but the more technical parts such as air law, meteorology and navigation are more complex and benefit from prior knowledge.

Top tips

  • Ask for the course materials to get an idea of what will be covered.
  • Clock up flight hours to understand the drone’s capabilities.

3. Taking the course

The qualification itself is fast-paced, but enjoyable. Course operators cover eight different modules that cover the content required by the CAA (see “The eight modules”).

The Aerial Academy course features a 16-question test that follows every two modules, with a required pass mark of 75%.

The exam used randomly generated questions, meaning no two candidates would get the same test. For some modules, I got lucky with very easy questions, whereas others were a lot more challenging.

It also featured an additional module on practical advice for running a successful drone enterprise, with tips on how to find business and work with customers.

Other courses may feature a single exam at the end of the course and can be written or multiple choice, depending on the course operator.

Each candidate got two attempts at passing each test, but the fail rate is low.

Top tips

  • Ask questions. The course is pretty fast-paced, so make sure you are clear across all subjects.
  • Take notes. The syllabus is wide and varied and is not something you will retain in your head if you are new to some of the topic areas.
  • Get familiar with the law. The relevant drone law for 2018 is The Air Navigation Order 2016 – CAP 393, 722 and 1687.

4. Practical assessment

If weather permits, the practical assessment may be able to be carried out at the conclusion of the theoretical course. However, it is usually undertaken on a different day to allow drone operators to prepare for the flight test.

Be prepared for a further examination before the practical flying element. The aim of this test is to ensure you have retained knowledge from the theory portion. Passing this part gets harder the more time has passed between the theory and practical assessments, so try to arrange the two close together.

For the flying element, operators are expected to show they can apply the different elements of the theory course. Operational assessment assesses those key areas of risk assessment, aircraft preparation, flying safely, dealing with emergencies and logging.

They will then undertake  five to 15 minutes of flight time to exhibit competence as a drone pilot, during which the examiner will ask them to perform a number of relatively simple manoeuvres.

These may include a figure of eight, steady climbs or descents while pitching left or right as well as taking a variety of photographs of fixed spots.

Users must also demonstrate a loss of connection with the drone and have an equipped failsafe that allows the aircraft to return to the home point unaided.

The final part of the assessment is demonstrating a safe landing and securing the aircraft after flight.

Top tips

  • Familiarise yourself with the drone that will be used for the assessment beforehand.
  • The test isn’t too challenging, but practising a loss of connection and how to input a failsafe command is worthwhile.

5. Final application to CAA

To finalise the application, a number of forms must be submitted to the CAA. These include your operations manual – a safety document relevant to individual drones, as well as proof of drone insurance and the required fee of £247.

This process can be quite complex, so make sure your course provider offer a service to walk you through all of the required documentation.

Top tips

  • An insurance company like Flock will give you pay-as-you-go insurance coverage instead of investing in a costly annual premium before the PfCO is granted.
  • Seek a course provider that includes help with the final element as part of your course fee.

The eight modules

Module 1:  Aircraft knowledge

Difficulty 4/10

  • Different categories of a drone
  • Drone flight mechanics
  • Failsafes and battery capabilities
  • Aircraft maintenance

Module 2: Airmanship and aviation safety

Difficulty 3/10

  • What makes a good or bad pilot?
  • Rules of using airspace
  • Creating and maintaining logs

Module 3: Airspace operating principles

Difficulty 5/10

  • Units of speed, altitude, distance and elevation
  • Types of airspace restrictions
  • How to obtain airspace approval

Module 4: Air law

Difficulty 7/10

  • Jurisdictions of air law (international, EU, UK)
  • Articles of relevant UK law
  • How to report something that goes wrong

Module 5: Meteorology

Difficulty 8/10

  • Compass bearing and synoptic charts
  • Pressure systems and weather fronts
  • Cloud and wind types and their effects

Module 6: Navigation and charts

Difficulty 8/10

  • Reading and using aeronautical charts
  • Using GPS and what to do if it fails
  • Alternative guidance and mapping tools

Module 7: Human factors

Difficulty 5/10

  • Minimising human risk factors
  • Working with other airspace users, customers and members of the public

Module 8: Operating procedure

Difficulty 6/10

  • Risk assessment and planning before you begin a job
  • Post-operation logging
  • Emergency procedures on site and post-operation