Far too often I have customers sending links to drone service company websites that have advertising and content that make me cringe. We mostly see what will eventually become evidence for Transport Canada to shut them down or fine them. We see them post half-truths about regulation and downright moronic claims that they are operating safely and legally.
I figured it was time to write this article to consolidate the years of experience that we have in helping startups get off the ground. I want to help your company get started and avoid those $25,000 fines from Transport Canada and make a success of it.
Below is a simple list of only seven steps to get started as a commercial drone operator in Canada. If you follow these steps, you will be up and running and completely capable of taking the market by storm with your service.
1. Go to ground school
Ground school is a step that too many are missing. You need a basic undertanding of how things fly, and the regulations that apply to unmanned aircraft. A PPL (Private Pilot’s License) is a huge benefit when starting off, but not everyone has a PPL, or the time and money required to get one. Ground school offers a lot of information, information that you probably didn’t even know existed. Ground School can set you apart from the competition when you are able to demonstrate to your customers that you have the knowledge and training to back you up.
How to find a good ground school? Well, you need to find one that is tailored specifically to remotely piloted aircraft (UAS, UAV, Drones, RPA, RPAS or whatever you want to call it). Too many ground school courses are heavy on manned aviation content and are just not as relevant to your needs. Look for a ground school that you can validate is Transport Canada compliant, there are only a few.
Another thing you should look for in a ground school is a real instructor. Online ground schools, especially those based on manned aviation content, are online and can take up to 6 months to complete! An in person ground school can save you time, get you up and running faster, and puts you in a classroom with a real world expert and your peers.
Check out the Aerobotika in-person Ground School that is taught by real commercial pilot instructors. These instructors teach airliner pilots, so they know…
2. Join Unmanned Systems Canada
Unmanned systems Canada is the association that represents not only operators like you, but manufacturers, your target customers, and many more people and organizations in the unmanned systems industry. They work hard to help represent their members when working with Transport Canada to develop regulations and best practices, they put together industry events, and have a big and extremely informative conference once a year.
With things like BVLOS on the horizon and other regulatory development happening around UAVs integrating into the Canadian airspace, USC is more critical to our industry than ever.
A USC membership is pretty inexpensive considering how much they do for the membership (starts at $75 per individual) and the membership is included with the USC conference fee.
The USC conference is a big event at which you will meet the who’s who of the UAV industry in Canada. It includes government, military, end users, academia, and more. There are dozens of very valuable sessions that are applicable to almost any use.
3. Go to flight school
Too often we see keen new pilots take their shiny new machine out of the box, just to be shoveling it’s remains into a body bag just days or hours later. You may have flown before, or maybe not. A flight school is a great experience to learn your first steps, hone your top gun skills, or to get a certificate to prove to your customers that you are one of the best. The objective of any good flight school should be to help you and your aircraft stay safe NO MATTER WHAT happens during your flight.
When you are looking for a flight school, you will want to consider the following: Do they teach you how to deal with component failures? Do they teach you the basics of your aircraft and its functionality? Do they provide a practice plan for you to use to continue your development? Do they have a logical and easy to follow process to take you from where you are now to the most advanced flying techniques? How experienced are the instructors? What kind of aircraft are you being trained on?
4. Select your aircraft
This is usually what people do first, that is wrong! Until you have been through at least steps 1 and 3, you might not know what is right for you. Too many people go get their machines just to find out that they are unreliable, difficult to work with, or that it just doesn’t meet their needs. Some people even buy their machine because “it looks so bad ass”. In ground school you are going to learn what really matters about a UAV. You learn what makes it reliable, what makes if fit your needs, and which machines have the best safety and reliability record.
In flight training you are going to learn how to operate. This will give you a feel of what is going to be the best aircraft for your skill level. I have seen new pilots spend $16,000 on a giant octocopter, just to pile it into the ground because it required such a high level of experience to fly.
Check out Lift RC for a good Canadian source of UAVs with amazing customer service.
5. Get insurance
So you have your new bird and all of your experience. What if you are doing everything right and your fancy new machine betrays you and decides to fly home…. to China? Never fear, insurance will cover you.
Here is the thing about insurance though, your existing insurance DOES NOT COVER YOU! You need special UAV insurance. Most people think that their home insurance or their business general liability insurance will cover them in the case of a UAV crash or theft. It does not. In fact, most insurance specifically names this as an exclusion!
Reach out to one of the specialized UAV insurers out there. If you try to get UAV insurance from most companies they are going to give you the blank stare and you won’t get anywhere. You need to find a firm that has specific experience in insuring UAVs as they will know all of the requirements and should be able to get something for you fairly quickly.
We recommend Calvin Reich of Capri Insurance as a first stop. Alternatively you can check out Caleb Winterburn at Air1 Insurance for a second opinion or to support a small family run business. Their contact is at the bottom of this article.
So here is the big one. Before you can fly commercially you need an SFOC. What is flying commercially? Well besides being the topic of this entire article, it is any time you fly for any benefit other than or in addition to the pure enjoyment of flight. This means volunteering, trading your services for something else, charging for data processing instead of flying… everything.
Do you always need an SFOC? Well no, there are times when you can fly in exemption but they are extremely far and few between. It is unlikely that you will be flying in exemption unless you are very very far out in the middle of nowhere.
So unless you are flying around in the arctic tundra all by yourself, you are going to need to figure this one out. Although Transport Canada does offer some guidance and has written very clear policy on this, the application can be a BEAST! The application can take about 80 hours to write properly, and the approval process ranges from weeks to months. Once you have the SFOC, you can fly within the restrictions that Transport Canada puts on you.
The easiest and fastest way around this is to have experts write it for you. You will need some basic information on your aircraft, what you want to do, and you will need insurance. The best service, of course, is Aerobotika’s SFOC service. This service includes the application, guidance and support through the process with Transport Canada, and SFOC maintenance, modifications, and support for the year if you get a standing 1 year certificate (this is what you want).
This subject is a big one. There are a lot of misnomers and misunderstandings that need to be explained, so we are going to write an entire article on this in the near future. Subscribe to our blog / newsletter to get info on this when it is available.
So close! You have everything you need now, but don’t jump on it too fast. Make sure you have a lot of practice before you go out and start flying in front of your customers. You need to know what you are doing and you need to come across as the best drone pilot in the world. There are a lot of operators out there that you might be competing with and you need a differentiator, what better way to stand out in the field than being the most put together and professional operation?
So there you have it
I hope these points clear up some of the common misconceptions that have been getting start-up operators in some hot water. This is how to get started, but there are several other secrets to how to actually succeed once you are out there in the wild west competing for the same business as all the other operators. Subscribe now and we will send you the new article coming out soon: “The secrets to success in the drone operator wild west”.
Calvin Reich, UAV Insurance Specialist
Caleb Winterburn, UAV Insurance Specialist
Air1 Insurance Services Ltd.
Belinda Bryce, UAV Insurance Specialist
The Magnes Group Inc.