Insights on becoming a drone operator
We reached out to FlightController, a provider of CASA approved Remote Pilot Certificate Training in Australia (see our global list of UAS Training Programs), to hear their thoughts on drones in Australia, their insights on becoming a drone operator, and much more. Their insights are not to be missed.
Q. In drone/UAV market is exploding worldwide, how would you describe interest in drones in Australia? Has interest in the certificate programs you offer, and the insights on becoming a drone operator, increased as a result?
We have been involved with training drone pilots for the last five or so years through association with our sister company Helitheory Australia, which is a helicopter training organisation. In that time we have watched the number of enquiries to do with unmanned flight absolutely skyrocket.
In those earlier days you needed to pass the theoretical exam for a manned aircraft as a pre-requisite for being granted an Unmanned Controller’s Certificate. That course is hard enough when you have been flying manned helicopters and want to fly manned helicopters in the future, let alone trying to do the course when you had no experience or desire to learn about manned flight! There is some cross-over but, unfortunately, not a lot, and the real-world skills you need as an unmanned pilot – things like understanding the legislation, where to find airspace layout and so forth – aren’t really covered in the manned aeroplane or helicopter syllabi, as those are skills generally gathered during a student’s flight time. It was frustrating for students and frustrating for us as teachers, and it made the whole thing a bit inaccessible for all but the most motivated drone guys.
As a result we decided to design a specific remote pilot course and have it approved by CASA (Australia’s aviation regulator). You can now be granted what is called the Remote Pilot’s Certificate – essentially a remote pilot licence, based on a course which is packed full of relevant information and includes hands-on flight skill training. It was a great experience for us to design the course as we were able to get rid of a lot of the irrelevant stuff and add in a lot of things that we found out were needed from our students who had gone through the old course. We still speak to a lot of those guys on a regular basis and they’re all out operating in the industry and loving it!
We have seen the number of enquiries and enrollments increase and they have been increasing steadily through the years. It really feels like an explosion now, in a good way. Its an exciting time in the industry.
Q. What makes your training programs unique, why should Australians attend your program versus those provided by others?
Probably because of our experience, our thoroughness, and what is already a great reputation. We want our students to perform to the highest level, so that if an operator needs a new pilot, they can look at our graduates and know that they are getting the best people. That is for us the holy grail – we already know what operators like, because we have known some of them for years, and we have designed our course around that, we plan to trade on reputation rather than marketing or just ticking boxes.
We also offer advanced skills courses and large aircraft type ratings, as well as a few other specialist courses. We are in the process of designing a course for aerial photography with Ken Butti of Mediadem (#) who is an experienced aerial photographer and cinematographer working with Getty Images amongst others. We hope that the students who are looking to become highly skilled professionals will be drawn to Flightcontroller.
Q. If someone wanted to pursue getting their certificates, what steps should they be taking first?
The first thing I tell everyone who asks me this question is “get out there and buy a drone!” – they’re so cheap these days, I had a tiny little plastic quadcopter that I bought for thirty bucks, and I flew it around inside my house, making obstacle courses and generally being an idiot. The thing took such a beating! It’s really quite hard to fly well, too, so when it came to the big drones (like the DJI Phantom – which now looks tiny to me haha) with GPS and attitude lock modes I had all of these extra flying skills in my pocket gained from slogging it away on the little guy.
It doesn’t need to be a tiny little quad like that though, getting something inexpensive and simple to fly – like a DJI Phantom – is a great way to start. Get some flying time under your belt, learn a few things about how the aircraft behaves and how the controls work.
(Just make sure you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else, or break any laws in the process!!)
Once you have some flying experience and are sure that you are ready to invest the time and effort into becoming a remote pilot, start getting in touch with your local flying schools and if there aren’t any around, your regulators! Most civil aviation authorities will have been putting some thought into multirotor aircraft and will most likely have heard any questions you might have hundreds of times already – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask them!!
If you are in Australia, there’s not really a need to get in touch with CASA yet, you can let us deal with that. Check out our website www.flightcontroller.com.au and give us a holler.
The other question that you need to ask is to yourself: what do you want to do? Is your passion photography? Cinematography? Do you like working with technology or automation? What would you like to do in the industry? What fires your inspiration?
Q. What industries appear to be driving the most need for certified UAV pilots in Australia?
The obvious one is photography and that really is the bulk of the enquiries that we get, and have been getting for years. That hasn’t really changed much, but the surveying industry has really gotten into the use of delta-wing type (fixed-wing) aircraft, and industries which do things like aerial spotting, agricultural spraying and so on are starting to take notice in a big way, too.
Q. How many people have gone through your program so far? What businesses have they gone on to work for (if you know)?
We have had students from Yamaha’s Australian R-MAX program including their chief instructor, we have had photographers and videographers from all of the major commercial television networks in Australia, we have had students from the imaging division of the Australian Federal Police, we have had manufacturers and builders like the guys at Inspired (www.inspiredaerialvision.com.au), photographers for Getty Images, Groundcontrol, Heliguy and more besides.
I always love hearing back from our old students about the exciting stuff they are doing, really cool things like filming surfers at big wave breaks or shooting car commercials, chasing the cars down the runways at old unused aerodromes.
Q. How do you see UAV training programs such as yours evolving over the next 2-3 years?
We would like to see some more flying away from visual line-of-sight introduced but unfortunately I don’t think the regulators have quite gotten their heads around that yet! Apart from that we will hopefully expand our training programs and move the basic training inside, to allow us to be in control of weather and wind and so on (we can simulate wind etc inside, and we can run night courses if they are inside). I would also like to introduce a bronze, silver and gold wings system to rank pilots and their level of experience and skill, much like they have in the model aircraft world.
We will continue to evolve and revise our courses based on feedback from the industry, employers and regulators, and taking into account new technologies and applications.
We are also looking at expanding our operations into other parts of Australasia and have a few other things which are really exciting but it would be too soon to tell you about now!!
Q. How popular are drones/UAVs for hobbyist in Australia?
Hugely popular! There are thousands of DJI phantoms in Australia, and only a handful are being used by serious professionals – if really any at all – so most of those thousands, they must be largely used by hobbyists. You can go to a hobby or toy shop or just look on ebay and see hundreds of different types of inexpensive drones. They really are a hoot to fly, so it’s not surprising that people are loving them, really.
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Q. What drones do you use for training purposes?
We start students off on the DJI Phantom 2, just to give people some experience with the controls and so on, getting hands-on experience is important I think. The Phantom is a great one for getting people comfortable with the basics. Once they are ready to fly the bigger machines, we have a larger hex (a Tarot T960) and will probably look to expand that fleet in the not too distant future. We do also do some simulation time, especially before we go to full-manual mode training.
In Australia, multirotors are divided into weight categories for licensing purposes, rather than by type. The sub-7 kilograms max take-off weight category and the 7-20 kilogram max takeoff weight are the categories that are important. Our students can graduate with both categories on their certificate if they choose.
Q. What are the biggest obstacles to wider adoption of drones?
I think it’s interesting to think about the challenges the industry is facing. In terms of technology, apart from battery life limitations and general limitations in LiPo technology, there really aren’t many things that can’t (theoretically at least) be done by a drone – the biggest limitation there is probably imagination.
The biggest real-world challenges I think are twofold – societal and regulatory. To that end I think it is crucial that we as a worldwide (civilian) industry try and keep the public on side, by being safe, responsible and respecting privacy and so forth. Stay educated, act professionally, be impressive. Think and act like a pilot flying an aircraft, not as a kid flying a toy. It probably wouldn’t take more than a particularly nasty and public crash for things to go bad on both the societal and regulatory fronts, so we all have to pull together and keep things going forward in a positive way (which I think they currently are).
The good thing that we have noticed in the Australian industry is a very collegial atmosphere amongst even rival operators, there’s a real community feeling in the industry and it’s really exciting to be a part of.
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