How I got a drone ‘licence’ in the UK (PfCO)

To fly a drone and make some money, you need a licence right? Well, it’s not quite a licence as such a thing doesn’t (yet?) exist in the UK. What you get is actually a certification of approval from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Known as ‘permission to fly for commercial operations’, in short, the PfCO is granted based on your basic flying knowledge and ability to operate a drone safely in UK airspace (this is UK only, but may help if you did want to officially fly overseas).

If you look out there for training providers, there is an ever expanding list in the UK which can be viewed on the CAA Website. I took my training with 3iC as classroom training wasn’t convenient for me (being in abroad at the time) and I’m pretty used to distance learning.

Phase 1 - Theory

Theory - always takes ages and requires attention. The theory part of the course is based on the following broad aspects of working in the drone industry:

  • Regulations & UK airspace
  • Airmanship
  • Aerodynamics – good solid science work, a difficult but interesting chapter to get your head around
  • Meteorology – fun topic, can you remember your clouds?
  • Safe Operations
  • Human Factors
  • Navigation

It’s all information that a drone pilot should know (and is based on what an actual aeroplane pilots study at flight school). The most difficult aspects are the science based chapters, such aerodynamics and meteorology, but these are displayed in a way that is easy to grasp. Throughout mnemonics and memorable phrases are given to remember procedures, this is helpful on the ground (such as the test you have to take!). Further to the basic theory the student must complete two important volumes that are vital to your operations and critical for your PfCO application. These are the ‘Systems Manual’ and the ‘Operations Manual’. The former is all important information you need to hand on your drone and the latter is all your business information, procedures and checklists - all pilots live by their checklists. This might sound like a lot of work, but 3iC make it very manageable indeed, they will check and give you feedback to make sure it is to the right standard.

In total, this took me about 10 hours, including going back to revise certain topics (aerodynamics and meteorology) and each chapter has a quiz which you must pass. Note that some questions in the quiz can be multiple choice… so, if all answers seem reasonable, they may all be correct. When the online syllabus is complete then its over to the practical.

Phase 2 - Practical Flight Assessment

This was easy to arrange. An assessor was quickly assigned and it was sorted via email. The test was organised in a field out in the country a few days later. The practical lasted for about an hour in total and thankfully the weather held out (this is your call on the day of the test). The practical was a series of manoeuvres (if you are a hobbyist you’ll be fine) and another multiple choice test, but you’d be pretty hot on this by now after the Phase 1 tests.

One important thing not to forget, you will need insurance for your test! Some websites quote up to £40, you can get this much cheaper at £15 so shop about. Check DroneSafe and Flock for test insurance. 

Now you’ve done your practical and theory test you can finally be recommended for permission to fly for commercial operations.

The PfCO Application Process

With Phase 1 and 2 complete… I’ve got my certificates of recommendation of:

  • Theoretical Knowledge & General Airmanship
  • Practical Flight Competence
  • Certificate of Recommendation for issue of a CAA Standard Permission (the thumbs up from 3iC for the drone class applied
    for)

Now, you apply for ‘standard permission’ with the CAA via their application website. For this you will also need insurance and to provide your operations/systems manual that you produced as part of the online theory course. The CAA state they require 28 days for the processing of your application - this actually took two weeks (10 working days) for mine. A couple of points here that is useful to know:

  • In terms of insurance, you don’t actually require a full year’s policy just to get your CAA, you need to prove that you know how to get it. The best way is to download the ‘Flock Insurance’ app or website (see image), sign up and get a PfCO cover note. This will be sufficient for your PfCO application, then when you work you may use to the app to insure your work for as little (minutes) to as long as you like (an annual policy).
  • If you were in the same boat as me, you may not yet have a limited company. In this case I applied as an individual but then used my intended company name as ‘trading as’. So both my name and Dronegraphica are present on my certificate.
  • The PfCO will cost you an initial fee of £247 and then you have to renew this annually. I expect that this is about half the initial price, around £100.
  • If you have any issues with the CAA application, you can contact the CAA ‘drones department’ directly and they are very helpful. 

Enjoy flying and making money with your drone.

The official PfCO application website

Get your proof of insurance here from Flockcover.com

The PfCO document

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