Training & PfCO

In order to fly a  drone  for commercial reasons the key requirement is to hold Permission  for Commercial Operations  (PfCO) from the Civil Aviation  Authority (CAA). However in order to gain this, the CAA requires to see a completed operations manual and evidence of pilot competency which is broken into three critical elements:

  • Adequate theoretical knowledge / general airmanship.
  • Successful completion of a practical flight assessment on the class of SUA that is being applied for.
  • A minimum amount of recent flying experience on the class of SUA that is being applied for. For those coming from a non-aviation background,  in order to achieve this you would attend a course run by one of the National Qualified Entities (NQE). Below is a list of NQEs who are also members of ARPAS-UK: (a full list of NQEs can be found on the CAA website.

Full NQEs

Across Safety Ltd
Aerial Exposure
Flyby Technology
Halo Drones
iRed Ltd
The UAV Academy
The Aerial Academy
Uplift Drones

The flight test is fairly basic and effectively looks at your mission planning, preflight inspections, maintaining visual line of sight at all times, performing accurate controlled flight in both GPS modes and Attitude modes (or equivalent), real time monitoring of the aircraft status, conducting a ‘return to home’ procedure and then shutting down the aircraft safely and logging necessary data.

They will take you through a ground school of approximately two days where the process of writing the ops manual will be discussed in depth. Sometimes the ground school is augmented with distance computer based training and it will probably end with an exam. With that done a flight test follows and then the NQE will assess your operations manual. If they are happy with this then the NQE will recommend that you obtain a PfCO from the CAA.  It should be noted that the order of Ground school, flight test and operations manual assessment can change from one NQE to another but the principles are much the same.

Restricted (Flight Test only) NQE

It should be noted that the courses do not necessarily teach you how to fly  a drone, so you will need to  clarify this before signing up. If not offered then you will need to find a consultancy service or flight school that can. The PfCO will allow you to fly within the confines of the Air Navigation Order, details of which are outlined on the Regulations page

In most cases, to operate successfully commercially you will need to be able to operate in congested areas. However, the CAA wishes to see a far greater emphasis on safety than that offered in passing the process outlined above in order for you to do so. Enter the safety case. This looks at not just your improved operational procedures and safety management system but also looks in depth at pilot competence and also the safety of your aircraft.  Unless you have evidence to prove you have prior experience or have a proven track record as a PfCO holder then getting a safety case approved could be difficult.

Finally, if you are coming from an aviation background then the process can be that bit easier as you may well not need to do the ground school. A flight test and an operations manual will still be required.

Two key questions arise from this, namely: how long does the process take and how much is it likely to cost?  In terms of time, it very much depends on how long it takes to write the operations manual and to what quality you write it. Whilst completion of the process may be quicker it would be sensible to allow a good 6 months to complete the process. As for costs, NQE costs vary but by the time you have paid for the courses and the CAA’s PfCO application, costs are going to be in the region of  £1,500 – £2,000 before travel and accommodation is factored in.