Gaining Drone Qualification and PfCO from CAA


Last year I completed a course from a company called UAV Academy that gained me a qualification called a CDP-C which basically means I am qualified by UAV Academy as a pilot for multirotor UAV’s of up to 7kg in weight.

You many be thinking “so what?, who are UAV Academy anyway?”. Well UAV Academy among others are whats called a National Qualified Entity (NQE), designated by the  Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to provide recommendations for pilots and crucially companies that want to operate UAV’s (Drones) commercially in the UK.

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So who are the CAA and what do they do?

I’ll quote the CAA from their website which sums up the role they play the the UK for aviation.

As the UK’s specialist aviation regulator we ensure that:

  • the aviation industry meets the highest safety standards
  • consumers have choice, value for money, are protected and treated fairly when they fly
  • we drive improvements in airlines and airports’ environmental performance
  • the aviation industry manages security risks effectively.

We are a public corporation, established by Parliament in 1972 as an independent specialist aviation regulator. The UK Government requires that our costs are met entirely from charges to those we provide a service to or regulate.

Essentially this means that the CAA set the regulations for all flight operations in the UK and as such have powers to prosecute anyone that break the regulations.

The CAA’s remit also covers UAV’s and drones and there are a set of special regulations that apply to what they call Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) again i’ll quote what the CAA say on their website about RPAS.

Popularly known as drones, but also referred to as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from small handheld types up to large aircraft, potentially a similar size to airliners.

Just like any other aircraft, an unmanned aircraft must always be flown in a safe manner, both with respect to other aircraft in the air and also to people and properties on the ground.The CAA’s primary aim is to enable the full and safe integration of all UAS operations into the UK’s total aviation system.

You can read all about the regulations for drones at the CAA website https://www.caa.co.uk/Consumers/Model-aircraft-and-drones/Flying-drones/

So what are the rules for flying drones anyway?

The rules for flying drones are different whether you are flying for fun or commercial purposes.

As of today you don’t need any special permission from the CAA to fly a drone for fun in the UK but there are still rules around which areas you can fly and what you can do with a drone even when you are flying for fun. You need to use common sense here and not do stupid things which could endanger yourself, other people or other aircraft. You can read about the DroneCode here.

If you break any laws in the UK whether flying for fun or commercially then you can be prosecuted by the CAA if caught.

So what about commercial flying?

The regulations for commercial flying in the UK are covered by special Articles in the Air Navigation Order which can be read here. Specifically these cover things like

  • Keeping a visual line of sight with the aircraft
  • Not flying a drone with a maximum takeoff mass of more than 7kg
  • Not flying in restricted airspace
  • Not flying at a height of more than 400 feet.
  • The pilot must hold a qualification and have permission from the CAA.

The full guidance for Umanned Aircraft Systems (drones) are outline in CAP 722 which can be read here.

There are loads more rules but they are the main ones. If you look at the last rule you can see that you need specific permission to fly a drone commercially from the CAA.

How do I gain permission?

So you want to fly a drone commercially well you need to do a few things first to gain whats now called a Permissions for Commerical Operations (PFcO) formally called a Permissions for Aerial Work (PFAW).

You need to first find a NQE that can recommend you for permission. This means that the NQE is responsible for training the pilot and making sure they have passed a ground school exam before they can get recommended. This also includes a flight assessment.

The flight assessment covers basic flying skills and you will be tested as if you were doing a job for a client to ensure you are operating in a safe manner and can control the aircraft and bring it into land when there are emergencies.

I choose to go with UAV Academy who run two day ground school classes at the end of which I sat an exam. Once you have passed the exam you can book your flight assessment with an instructor. Once you have passed the flight assessment there is another thing you must do, an operations manual which I will go into more detail about below.

I personally went to the ground school class in Gloucestershire at Cotswold Airport and successfully passed the ground school exam. It was a nice day to be sitting in a classroom as you can tell.

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The operations manual.

Before you can be submitted by the NQE you need to create an operations manual. This outlines your commercial operations procedure to the CAA who will make sure that if anything goes wrong while you are operating commercially you are held to account by your operating procedures in accordance with the law. So this operations manual must outline all the procedures you would take when operating a drone and what you would do in emergencies. It also outlines the equipment you are going to use and the forms you are going to keep while operating commercially. Forms are there to record things such as flight logs (which you MUST maintain), risk assessments, site surveys and any other things you may need to record while doing a job.

Flight records must be submitted to the CAA every year for renewal of your permissions.

My operations manual was in the order of 26 pages long.

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Submitting you application to the CAA.

Once you have your pilot qualification and your operations manual you then need to purchase some insurance. The CAA needs to see you have insurance in place to issue permission.

I went with https://www.moonrockinsurance.com/ for my needs.

It took a good while to get all this together and when I finally submitted my application (twice) I paid my fee (about £112) and the permission was emailed to me a few weeks later.

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I am now able to operate a drone commercially in the UK and have setup an aerial photography company called Aerial Focus Technology Ltd. Check us out.

What drone do we use?

At the moment we are using a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced which is more that adequate for our needs. We shot the video below with it, it has a great quality HD camera (1080p) and with all the electronics such as GPS and sonar its so easy to fly and stable as anything.

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