The changing face of UK drone pilot qualifications

My original post about routes through to obtaining a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Permission for Aerial Work (PfAW) is now a little out of date! A lot has changed in UK drone legislation in the last few months so I thought I’d put out a bit of an update. I will try to keep this simple but things seem to have got messier than ever really.

So, let’s start at the end! At present, in order to operate any drone commercially in the UK you need to obtain a PfAW. The PfAW is divided into two categories; 0-7Kg and 7-20Kg. The 0-7Kg permission is slightly less restrictive but still sets high safety expectations.

In March 2015 the Civil Aviation Authority updated their core UAS guidance publication, CAP 722.

One change detailed in CAP 722 means that operators who already have manned aviation experience have the opportunity to take an alternative route to a PfAW. So if you already have a PPL, CPL, microlight licence, gliding qualification or military experience you may be able to go through our flight assessment only process. Please see page 47 of CAP 722 for more details or give us a call to find out more!

Another change is that operators who hold a BMFA A or B certificate for the type of aircraft they wish to fly can now apply directly to the CAA for a PfAW with no further qualifications or assessment necessary. for multirotors, either a helicopter or multirotor A certificate is acceptable.

A further change means that it is no longer necessary to pass assessments on every aircraft you wish to fly or to inform the CAA if you wish to use new aircraft within your assessed categories. One assessment per category (0-7Kg or 7-20Kg) is all you need. there is no requirement to renew your pilot qualification annually as long as you keep your currency up-to-date: at least 2 hours flying every three months. You are required to renew your PfAW annually.

So what do you actually need to do to get a PfCO?

Ah, you noticed the change from PfAW to PfCO! As of August 2016, it is now called a Permission for Commercial Operations.

The CAA are interested in four areas that they call critical elements:

  1. Theoretical knowledge
  2. Initial practical flight assessment
  3. Operations Manual
  4. Experience requirement

You apply for a PfCO using form SRG 1320.

So, let’s try to be logical. As far as the CAA are concerned, in terms of the critical elements above:

  • If you have a BMFA A or B certificate, you already have 1, 2 and probably 3 if you are a regular flyer. If not, get out and fly. I would strongly recommend you read CAP 722 before applying though. You still need to apply and get your PfCO before operating commercially.
  • If you are involved in manned aviation you probably already have 1. You need to get a flight assessment which we can do for you. Get yourself up to speed on the latest UK drone legislation by reading CAP 722 as working outside your aircraft changes things slightly! You will need to make sure you get adequate experience on your RPAS before the assessment. If your manned qualification is expired you will need to contact the CAA to find out if they will accept it. They will not accept expired PPLs, if they expired before 31st December 2009.
  • If you have no previous manned experience and no BMFA certificates, you will need to go through a qualification with one of the full NQEs listed below.

What is an NQE?

An NQE (a National Qualified Entity), is an organisation approved by the CAA to recommend people for a Permission for Commercial Operations.

Restricted NQEs

Restricted NQEs can carry out flight assessments for drone pilots who already have manned aviation experience as described above or satisfy the theoretical knowledge element in some other way. Restricted NQEs can’t offer theory assessment.

Full NQEs

Full NQEs can carry out theory and flight assessments for drone pilots who have no previous formal experience. The NQEs all have their own qualifications or certifications, which tend to differ in delivery style, but as far as the CAA are concerned they are all equally acceptable for applying for a permission for aerial work. Some NQEs claim their offerings are more internationally recognised but it is worth checking carefully with both the NQE and the aviation authority in any other countries you may wish to operate in. Prices and timescales of theory courses also vary with some NQEs using distance learning to enable a shorter theory course. The name of the qualification offered is in brackets.

The Aerial Academy (TAAC): www.theaerialacademy.com
Whispercam (UAPQ-s): www.whispercam.co.uk (now running courses at our Norwich location)
Aerial Motion Pictures (ICARUS): www.aerialmotionpictures.co.uk
Resource Group (RPQ-s): www.resourcegroup.co.uk
Rheinmetall Technical Publications UK Ltd (RPCS): www.uastraining.com
EuroUSC (BNUC-S): www.eurousc.com

What next?

Please feel free to contact us via The Aerial Academy if you need more information. We can also provide basic and advanced flight training and can recommend and supply drone equipment including most DJI equipment and a full custom build service.

I’ve heard about operating safety cases (OSC) what are those?

Basically, if you want to operate outside a standard PfAW, particularly flying 7-20Kg machines in congested areas or if you want to fly at greater heights or closer than standard distances you will require an OSC. Here is my blog post on operating safety cases, but I strongly recommend you read CAP 722 before embarking on any of this. It really is very helpful once you get your head around it!

As always, fly safe! This information is as correct as we can get it at the time of publication but may be out of date by the time you read it so please check current guidelines and feel free to contact us if you need more information.