One Year On

It is one year on from when I purchased my first Drone at The Photography Show at the NEC Birmingham. With over 80 flying hours and 400 flights under my belt, I thought I would reflect on the past year as a small unmanned aircraft (SUA) pilot.

There were a number of stands offering drones at the UK’s premier show for photographers. I picked on DroneFlight based in Richmond, North Yorkshire who were offering more than just the hardware. They were prepared to answer my many questions. It was clear to me that training was key to adding aerial photography to my business. With a budget of £7k-£8k in mind, I calculated that I would need to split my budget equally between buying the hardware and the training needed to acquire my UK Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA) Permission for Aerial Work (PFAW).

The aircraft I choose was the then new DJI Inspire 1, a highly capable ready-to-fly aircraft with a gimbal stabilised camera capable of FullHD and 4K video and 12MP camera, for £2700 at the show. I also booked my Ground School training through DroneFlight with the CAA-approved National Qualification Entity (NQE) Resource Group. A year ago there were not many NQEs to choose from. There were just 6, now there are at least 24.

The DJI Inspire 1 is a fully automated GPS stabilised remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that is easy to fly and provides a very stable camera platform. It has been described as having a tripod in the sky. However, this ease of flight can come back to bite the over confident pilot. In my first few days I did break a few propellers manoeuvring too close to solid objects. As they say, practice makes perfect (or a little better).

I attended my 3-day Ground School in Newcastle in May 2015 learning vital details of aviation law, weather, UK airspace and flight planning. I passed the tough written exam with relative ease. The next issue was to find specialist drone insurance. This was not easy or cheap. You needed to have passed the Ground School before anyone would offer insurance on the proviso that you completed your Flight Assessment within a short period afterwards. I went with Coverdrone costing me nearly £800 for a year.

The next few weeks were spent preparing my emergency procedures and checklists before travelling down to North Yorkshire for my flight assessment. I was able to get some useful practise and essential knowledge under the watchful eye of Andrew Griffiths of Droneflight before taking the test. The flight assessment itself tested my planning and risk assessment prior to a practical on site evaluation and the test itself. For the flight assessment I was required to demonstrate my piloting skills, safe operation and emergency procedures using both GPS and manual modes. In 20 minutes it was all over and (big head moment) I was told that I had passed with one of the best performances ever.

Several more weeks were spent finalising my Operations Manual detailing how I intended to operate the Inspire within my business. No templates are provided as this is supposed to be a work of your own creation. After a few amendments this was submitted with my application and fee to the CAA. My PFAW came as a PDF attachment to an email about a month later.

One essential for safe flight operations with drones (or any other type of flying) in practice and lots of it. This is needed to develop the necessary situation awareness (which way is your drone is pointing) and motor skills (how to move the control stick without thinking about it). Since August last year I have attempted to fly daily subject to the Scottish weather. Excessive wind and rain (and we get a lot of that) will ground you. I have also enrolled as a beta tester for DJI, regularly testing new firmware improvements to aircraft flying performance and camera operation. I have been able to use my long experience in aeronautical and software engineering in the interesting work.

I have also developed this website to promote my new business venture, MoraySky, and been training my brother, Chris, to fly the drone and to become a camera operator. We make a good team.

The past year as been an interesting and challenging one. I wonder what the next year will bring?

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