Rather than dexterity or flying skills, what you really need to be a professional civilian drone pilot may simply be patience.
Australian startup Ninox, which began trials in 2015, is one of a number of local companiesthat has a business plan relying on the services of professional drone pilots. Ninox, in particular, plans to hire out its unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to assist with invasive pest detection and agricultural mapping, among other tasks.
But first, they need people to fly their machines. Colin Smith, a former army major in the Australian Defence Force, is the company’s newest chief UAS controller. The professional drone pilot shared some of the ins and outs of operating a UAS with Mashable Australia.
First up, there’s the lingo to nail down. “We class ourselves as UAS controllers,” he explained. “The difference between an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and a UAS is it’s a system [that] compromises of all the ground control stations, the crew and the air vehicle itself.”
The grassroots training
There’s also a month of training. Smith just returned from Israel after an intensive four weeks working with Ninox’s UAS manufacturer, BlueBird Aero Systems. Learning to fly Ninox’sSpyLite system was no easy task.
There was classroom training, going through the theory of flight, aerodynamics and how the ground control station works, Smith said, as well as hours of flying practice and reviewing emergency procedures. They also trained in advanced techniques, such as taking infrared video and mapping using the UAS.
For future Ninox employees, the complicated nature of licensing to become a UAS operator in Australia is also something to keep in mind. “There is quite a considerable difference between controlling UAVs and flying manned aircraft … but the way licensing is currently managed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) requires that [UAS] operators are qualified in much the same way as pilots of manned flights,” he said.
This higher level of qualification allows them to fly out of line of sight in certain circumstances, which recreational UAV enthusiasts in Australia are not allowed to do.
“There are elements of the syllabus that really don’t relate to us at all, like briefing passengers,” he said. “We’re working hard with CASA, and CASA is working hard with us, to make sure we’re doing it right.”
What does it take?
According to Smith, the skills needed to become a UAS operator are not flashy. He explained that a background in surveillance could help you get the foot in the door, along with patience and a willingness to work hard.
“The training aside, I guess it’s an eye for detail … and patience as well,” he said. “Surveillance is a very painstaking, time consuming sort of operation. You don’t always get to see what you want to see.
“It can be quite frustrating. You might go out there for three or four hours looking for invasive pests and you don’t see any.”
While UAS experience is a bonus, when looking for new Ninox employees, flying time may not be the number one asset. “Grassroots training [can be] done out of Israel by BlueBird Aero Systems,” he said. “If you’ve got a background in surveillance, whether military or civilian, that would be equally as good, to be honest with you.”
The two UAS operators and two technicians currently employed by Ninox have all spent some time in the military, Smith said, and have a background in either surveillance or UAVs. “Given someone who has surveillance experience over UAS experience, and has a good work ethic, I’d tend towards that person,” he said.
What’s the appeal?
The diverse nature of the services Ninox intends to offer with its UAS is what appeals to Smith about the job. Along with assisting with feral animal control, the company could help with asset management such as checking on pipes and power lines, as well as 3D mapping and search and rescue, he suggested.
While Smith had experience with UAVs in the military, Ninox is allowing him to get outside. “I like being outdoors … the chance to get out in the bush again and operate the system at the coal face … that’s where we all want to be, I think,” he explained.
You also get to develop a cutting edge piece of equipment: “It’s also the chance to develop the technology for the future,” Smith added.
If you love drones enough to sit still for hours, this is the job for you.