In 2020, drones patrol prisons, spot sharks and patch-up power lines, but very shortly, they’ll be taking you to work, delivering your shopping and hauling you up a ski slope. Here, UAV Training Australia’s Wayne Condon explains how the industry went from recreational to commercial in the last few years – and why the real revolution is still to come
Promoted by UAV Training.
Wayne Condon, the CEO and chief pilot of UAV Training Australia, has a simple answer to how he ended up instructing others to fly drones. “I’m not the type to sit still,” he quips.
Before he got going, his exhausting resumé included stints as a pilot, ADF Squadron Leader, university lecturer, government manager and even a fire fighter. It’s no surprise, then, that the ever-inquisitive Condon was one of the first to notice the lack of professional training for UAV pilots in Australia five years ago.
“Most people weren’t taking much notice of it,” he explains. “But I thought it had the potential to be a little bit like a pyramid in that, if you get started there now, you should be able to find yourself pretty quickly getting up to the pointy end of the spear.”
Fast forward just a few more years, and his still-fledgling company had overtaken his handful of rivals and was being approached by Boeing for help. “Even CASA was taken by surprise,” Condon says. “Early on, they looked around but didn’t realise this thing was going to go off like a firework in the background.”
Condon’s students sign up to his courses for much the same reason as he started himself: to join an industry on the brink of becoming ‘The Next Big Thing’. How big? Well, American futurist Thomas Frey reckons there will be a billion drones in the world by 2030; Deloitte values the industry at $100 billion right now; and already the Australian government think 8 per cent of residents own one. But even today, commercial drones are used more widely than most realise by filmmakers, tradies, firefighters, lifesavers, farmers, miners, the military, oil and gas organisations and even marine biologists.
“So, to give you some examples,” says Condon. “At a construction company, a drone can survey an area in a fraction of the time a human can using a process that renders a full 3D map of the ground with a laser. Hospitals are using them to deliver medical supplies. Surf lifesaving in Sydney has shark patrols. And power corporations use them to inspect giant wind turbines. We’ve even just come back from teaching Queensland Parks and Wildlife how to adapt them for surveillance operations.
“And that’s the amazing thing about it. It’s not like being a software programmer. They’re everywhere. It’s amazing to see how it’s moved from a new industry to the forefront of what’s happening.”
And perhaps, inadvertently, COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of progress. Not necessarily because global red tape has been ripped up to enlist drones to help, but that an army of airline pilots are joining enthusiasts in wanting to learn the ropes. Already, Condon has trained several former A380, 777 and 787 captains on his conversion course and has been forced to increase his staffing four-fold to keep up with demand.
“These people now, because of COVID-19, have taken a tough look and thought, ‘Geez, what can I do with my skill set?’ We’ve been inundated, but, at the same time, had to educate a lot of airline and commercial pilots on what they need to do to gain their qualifications to get into this field,” Condon explains.
The reason, he thinks, is that while piloting the device might be different from flying a Boeing or Airbus, much of the skills on the periphery remain intact. Aerodynamics, say, are similar to helicopter flying, an instinct for reading the weather conditions is vital, while human factors, like fatigue and stress management, play a part.
“So, there’s a fair bit on the course that students, when they enrol, are surprised by how closely aligned it is,” Condon adds.
On the flip side, some struggle with not being in a perfectly air-conditioned cockpit.
“You’re standing outside in the elements, flying a drone from anywhere from 100 grams up to the state-of-the-art M300 we just purchased which weighs 11 kilograms. They are mentally shattered after their training because it takes it out of them,” Condon says.
The question he’s most often asked is why people should sign up to a course when the majority of drone owners figure it out for themselves?
“With people that are doing it for leisure, what happens is they go and buy a drone
product, read the manual a little bit, and then basically go out and fly it. And I like to joke you always see adverts on social media stating: FOR SALE, one drone box, one battery, one controller, no drone,” Condon says.
Drones, he argues, are easy to fly within reason, but when something goes wrong, or the systems aren’t working, that’s when the issues start. Even those who have selftaught find there is a considerable step up to learning all the techniques to fly professionally.
“The candidates who have all come to our training are just amazed at what you have to know as a commercial drone pilot to gain your CASA licence,” Condon adds. Yet, he finds most get quickly hooked, no matter how many sticking points they come across in their progress.
“It’s like being on a freight train,” he enthuses. “Once this thing starts, it takes a long time to stop it. So, the way we assist those people is with extra tuition or extra flying – to get them up to where they need to be.”
But the industry is nowhere near the end of that pointy spear yet. Buildings, he tells Australian Aviation, are being built with drone landing pads on their roofs, not for packages, but people. Uber is gearing up to launch flying taxis. And soon the RAAF will have a considerable drone fleet.
“That’s not what’s coming. That’s where we go,” Condon says. “And it’s only just a matter of time.”
Andrew Ranking, UAV Training Australia’s senior pilot, talks through which courses are right for you if you want to embark on a new career piloting drones – or want to brush up on your skills.
There’s just a lot of interesting usages that we’ve seen: drones being used near beaches to provide flotation devices to swimmers in trouble; delivering vital supplies people during COVID-19 lockdown in Canberra; and farmers during the recent drought used them to monitor livestock, crops, water supplies and to ensure railway power lines are safe.
Introduction to Drone Flying Course
One day, $350
This course covers all the basics to safely and legally operate remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) such as drones and UAVs.
“There’s no strict requirements for that course and it’s the one for someone who wants more information about drones. Maybe they’ve bought one, but don’t necessarily want to do the full licensing,” Rankin says.
“And so rather than opening up the box, pairing it up, turning it on and flying it, generally it’s for people who want to take a little bit more time to understand what it is they’re dealing with. People who want to understand the rules and regulations, get some help setting it up and actually do some flying with a qualified instructor.
“The other market it’s targeted for is people that want to actually operate drones commercially, in what’s called the ‘excluded’ category, which is where you can operate a drone commercially if it’s under two kilograms, and you stick to the standard rules and regulations. A lot of people like real estate agents and people starting out generally take that path and they might want a bit more information.
“We’ve had a case where there was a whole family who did the course, and a couple of them bought drones. Mum, dad and their two kids came along to understand how to use it properly. Sometimes it’s someone who’s bought a drone, had a few issues, are not sure what they’re doing wrong and want a bit of help to do it properly.”
For a full course overview, click here.
CASA Drone Certification Initial RePL Training
Five days, $1500
This course enables professionals to become a CASA-certified remote pilot through theoretical and practical flight learning and development. Participants also complete theoretical competencies on Remote Pilot Aircraft (RPA) law, RPA systems, meteorology, navigation, human factors, operational flight planning, aeronautical radio, aviation English along with other modules required by CASA to meet the RPA licensing requirements.
“This course is for people who are entering the industry but they don’t have a current CASA pilot’s license of any sort. It enables professionals to become a CASA-certified remote pilot through theoretical and practical flight learning and development,” Rankin says.
“This is our most popular course and is for someone who wants to get licensed. That’s the entry into the industry through what’s called the remote pilot licence for sub-sevenkilogram multirotors. It’s pretty much half theory, half practical.
“What we’re trying to do is meet the minimum requirements for the issue of a licence, but there’s quite a defined process from CASA of the things we have to tick off. And also adding as much general experience we can to get them as close to safe as we can in the five days we have. So, it’s a pretty intense week.
“We also squeeze into that week, the Aeronautical Radio Operator’s Certificate. So that’s another one-day course, normally. And we tend to do that in an evening or people come back the following week. The reason we include this is it allows students to communicate on aviation radios and assist with risk management when flying, so they can monitor what’s happening and operate in areas closer to airports.”
For a full course overview, click here.
RePL Drone Licence CASA Pilot Conversion Course
Two days, $890
This course enables aviation professionals with prior aviation experience (holding a PPL, CPL or ATPL pilot’s license) a streamlined path into the RPAS industry. By completing the conversion course, participants can expect to undertake a condensed and formulated training package to allow previously skilled aviation personnel become up-to-date and equipped with the required RPAS qualifications and techniques.
“This is for someone who already holds a flight crew licence, say as an airline or commercial pilot, and wants to add a remote pilot licence to their resume. We take them out and do at least five hours of flying in a flight assessment and tick off the practical skills. But in our second day, we cover all the other things that they really need to understand to be effective in the industry. Again, it’s pretty intense. We cover areas such as batteries; the differences in situational awareness when you’re on the ground, not in the cockpit; the rules and regulations specific to drones; and the operational planning and risk assessments you do as a drone, rather than airline, pilot,” Rankin says.
“We also cover general theory about how drone systems work because they’re not the same as in a manned aircraft system. The things we don’t cover are areas such as maps, charts and understanding flight planning. Those guys know how the airspace is structured – we don’t need to tell them that stuff – but we just try to assist them in the areas where they don’t know a lot. And they’re also getting a multi-rotor licence. So, we introduced some of the rotary wing effects that they may not have any experience with previously and some of the characteristics of flying an aircraft with a vertical take-off and landing.
“Some things are the same; some things are the opposite. And just because you can fly a manned aircraft really well doesn’t mean you can fly a drone – and sometimes that’s a shock to the guys, who can turn up and think it’s going to be a walk in the park.”
For a full course overview, click here.
Commercial Drone Licence and Course for Sub-25kg Multirotor
One-two days, $1000
This course enables Remote Pilot License (RePL) professionals to develop the skills required to fly and be licenced for operating drones up to 25 kilograms safely and professionally.
“Different licences will allow you to fly different categories or weight classes of drones. The two previous licensing courses restrict you to seven kilograms initially. This sub-25-kilogram course releases that restriction. The more complex the task, or the more expensive the equipment hanging underneath, generally the larger drones that are used because of things such as bigger motors, props and payloads, as well as providing greater redundancy with more motors and props through hexacopters or octocopters rather than quadcopters,” Rankin says.
“The latest DJI drone has a battery life and flight time of 55 minutes. But to do that, they’ve got two pretty big batteries on there, which take it higher up the weight category. The reason pilots want to do the course could be driven by the types of roles they want to do: carrying more complex and expensive equipment means they need to have larger aircraft with more redundancies built-in. Or it could just be that the drone they want to fly to do the task is just over that limit they’ve currently got.
“Plus, a lot of the airline guys we’re dealing with at the moment want to add the 25 kilograms just so they can differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd, who only go up to seven kilograms. It’s also a way for them to get some more experience flying and I think they just understand that industry experience is a big thing.”
For a full course overview, click here.
Night VFR RPAS Training (NVFR)
One day, $1000
For a full course overview, click here.
This specialist course is open to RePL holders at all levels. It allows RPAS pilots to gain valuable experience by undertaking night RPAS flight operations at our approved training area. RePL Pilots will take-off and land to a night lit configured runway and landing area with taxiway,s which are coded to the Manual of Standards (MOS 139) Aerodromes for night operations.
“This one is, is a little bit different in that it’s not like an endorsement on their licence to say you’re allowed to fly at night. This is an experiential lesson. So, we give them experience in flying at night, teaching them about some of the issues and characteristics to look out for such as optical illusions. There’s theory, and then we go out and do a practical session where they apply the techniques we taught them,” Rankin says.
“However, the way the regulations are, you’re not actually allowed to fly at night unless you have what’s called a Remote Operator’s Certificate, which is approved for night flying. So, organisations or individuals may say that you need to have done one of these courses, before they will sign you off internally. It’s also a way of demonstrating your experience and getting some expertise in it so that you can get employment in a role which may need you to do that.
“When landing a traditional aircraft at night, on a runway, there’s a lot of illusions around lighting: you can’t see the ground necessarily and you’ll see reflections of different things such as bright or dim lights. And likewise, when you fly a drone, and you’re looking up into the sky, or across the cityscape or whatever, you’re getting the same effects, it’s just slightly different. Some of the techniques we use revolve around the lighting systems and managing the information that we do have available to us through remote controls and things like that.
“We also cover pre-flight planning and techniques to minimise the risks associated with flying at night. If you’re actually planning to do a night flight, what kind of things should you be looking for? And how do you set up your landing areas and your lighting systems on the ground to be able to orientate yourself to come back?”