Job: Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flight co-ordinator, also known as director of drone operations, commercial drone pilot or director of flight operations.
The Role: The role of a UAV flight co-ordinator is to manage flight operations for commercial unmanned vehicles or fleets. As UAVs and drones become more accessible, organizations are increasingly finding uses for these highly sophisticated unmanned machines. It is the role of the UAV flight co-ordinator to manage the technology and human resources required to complete tasks using UAVs, which could range from land surveys to infrastructure inspection to film production.
“We’re discovering a new application for UAVs almost daily,” said Kingsley Chen, the UAV fleet co-ordinator for the SunPower Corporation. Mr. Chen, who grew up in Markham, Ont., now helps co-ordinate unmanned flight operations all over the world for the San Jose-based solar energy provider.
“Inspection or other measurement uses are quite suited to UAVs and drones, and we’re exploring that as well, but the low-hanging fruit is power-plant development and large-scale 3-D mapping,” he says. “We’re talking upwards of 24,000-acre parcels of land that we’ve looked at in the past.”
Mr. Chen explains that previous to the boom in accessible and affordable UAV and drone technology, companies that wanted to pursue large-scale construction projects would send teams to survey and map large plots of land. “We’re talking weeks versus a day or two with a drone or UAV,” he said.
As the drone or UAV flies over a plot of land, it takes between nine and 16 images of every tree, boulder, structure or other feature of the landscape, building a 3-D map of everything it captures. “And then we know, ‘Okay, we can build in this location, but we can’t build over here because there’s a stream or a hill or a pond,'” explains Mr. Chen.
Flying the actual UAVs, however, only comprises about a quarter of Mr. Chen’s time on the job. Another quarter is spent training co-workers and partners around the world on how to best use the technology for their purposes. The rest, he explains, is spent staying on top of ever-changing regulations and insurance policies, organizing and presenting the data he’s collected and experimenting with new innovations and technologies.
Salary: Since drones and UAVs are being utilized by an ever-increasing list of industries, the salary expectation can range widely. For example, commercial drone operators in the film industry are often compensated differently than those working for a utility provider. A 2014 CNN Money report suggested that starting salaries in the industry are as high as $50 per hour, or over $100,000 per year, but Mr. Chen says that might be a bit generous, at least for a beginner.
“It spans the entire range,” said Mr. Chen. “You could have a real estate agent using a drone for their PR work or to film a commercial, and they’re earning whatever they’re earning. Then you could have someone working at a big company that’s doing multinational work and they could be making six figures easily. So it really does span a wide range.”
Overall, Mr. Chen says the salary is often comparable to other professional-level positions that require specialized training in whatever industry in which the operator is employed.
Education: While Mr. Chen and other early adopters in the commercial drone industry have a pilot’s licence, they are no longer required for commercial drone pilots in Canada. Instead, Transport Canada now issues a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) to qualified commercial drone pilots.
While the licence is mandatory for commercial UAV pilots, there are a variety of training programs across the country. For example, the UAV Pilot Training program at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre offers three-day training programs for $549, and the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems offers a day-and-a-half flight-training program across Canada for approximately $600 plus tax.
Beyond the legally required certification, however, it’s often beneficial to have additional skills and training relevant to industries that utilize UAV operators. For example, Mr. Chen, who earned a bachelor of engineering science from the University of Western Ontario, says many UAV operators in his industry have prior piloting and engineering experience, and some are even former military pilots.
“Now almost anyone can get into it, but it would be complimentary to have a technical background, because you need to add value to what you’re doing,” he said.
Job Prospects: With more industries finding more uses for UAV and drone operators, the job prospects are booming. A 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) projected over 100,000 new jobs in unmanned aircraft operations by the year 2025, while a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that the market for commercial applications of drone technology would reach $127-billion by the year 2020.
Challenges: UAV flight co-ordinators are constantly dealing with changing regulations in a patchwork environment, where federal aviation rules can conflict with municipal and provincial laws. Regulations concerning privacy, operator licensing, equipment insurance and more are constantly changing, and Mr. Chen says staying on top of the regulations can be a full-time job unto itself.
Regular challenges include “being compliant with the rules, getting people properly trained, meeting insurance requirements, registration, keeping records, figuring out how to be legal with these things and how to grow an organization in a sustainable way in that environment,” he said.
Why they do it: Mr. Chen says that despite the patchwork regulatory system, the field is attracting a lot of interest from technologists, artists and aviation enthusiasts alike. He explains that the profession provides a steady balance of fieldwork with office-bound work and is perfect for those who like to tinker and experiment with technology. “There’s a mixture of the outdoor and the indoor world, while not being exclusively defined by either,” he said.
Misconceptions: The greatest misconception that Mr. Chen says all UAV flight co-ordinators need to contend with is the failure to distinguish between commercial UAVs and household drones. Unlike the popular propeller-powered toys, commercial UAVs can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are just as often fixed-wing aircrafts as traditional quadcopter drones.
“You can fly around your backyard, and that’s nice, but to figure out how to scan 24,000 acres and get good data out of that is a totally different thing,” says Mr. Chen, adding that, unlike enthusiasts, professional flyers need an understanding of wind patterns and even learn how to manoeuvre their vehicle out of a hawk attack.
“People think of it as an immature technology, when it has been used for quite a while now and has proven itself to be a very cost-effective way of gathering large amounts of data,” he said.