With the commercial use of drones to increase in the coming years, we wanted to take a look at where we are today and take a quick look at what is just around the corner. As of December 2014, there are 442 operators approved for ‘aerial work’ in the UK. These companies and organisations have gone through the pilot training necessary before becoming certified for ‘aerial work’ by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). It’s a rigorous process where pilots are required to understand the essentials of operating in airspace, prove their skills as a drone pilot and follow the operational process outlined by the CAA. Once approved, a license is valid for one year and can be extended each year. Assessments are also necessary for each drone in operation. The main training grounds for drones in the UK are Resource Group and EuroUSC.
Below is a map of just 303 of the 442 operator locations currently with approval for aerial work (we don’t have locations on all operators for various reasons). These operators carry out a range of services to cater to the needs of companies both nationally and internationally. We don’t think it will be too long before this map is dense with commercial operators given the value drones can offer and the rate pilots are seeking their permissions.
Operations are restricted to ‘line of sight’ without an extended permission and most operations are limited to 400ft (which is just under 122 meters) in height. To give you a guide of how high that is, St Paul’ Cathedral is 111 meters and the London Eye is 135 meters – so the lower end of some of the tallest buildings in London. There isn’t much reason to go above this height unless the drone needs to cover a long range for instance. For operational purposes 400ft is mostly sufficient.
True integration into airspace won’t be possible until drones are equipped with sense-and-avoid capabilities. There are a number of technology startups tackling this problem and the latest to announce their existence is Skydio. They have just come out of stealth mode and raised $3M in venture capital. These systems require onboard sensors to acquire an accurate representation of their surroundings at all times and in all circumstances. Kind of like what we’re seeing today with the development of autonomous cars on our roads.
Saftey is the number one consideration for the industry. There won’t be a commercial drone industry unless we are able to operate to the same safety levels of what we expect from commercial airliner operators. But with everything that is going on in the industry (far too much to consolidate into this one blog post), it’s clear to see where it’s going. To summarise:
We’ve got a bustling commercial drone sector here in the UK, already catering to the needs of companies in many different verticals.
We have the framework and guidance from a fantastic civil aviation authority – renowned as a world leader.
We have well funded technology startups taking on some of the biggest technological challenges the industry faces.
It looks more than likely that there will be upwards of 600 commercial operators in the UK by the end of 2015. The CAA have developed a safe framework for the commercial drone industry to grow. With some fantastic technology advancements in the pipeline, it looks likely that drones will rapidly increase in reliability and versatility.