The innovative small commercial UAV (or RPAS) sector is expanding at a phenomenal rate. But how do you go about setting up and running your own UAV operator company? TIM ROBINSON gets expert advice.

The small UAV sector is expanding fast. (Kurnia Aerial Photography). 

Almost every week, it seems, there is a new small UAV story involving spectacular footage shot by drones, new uses of multicopters, or even wedding proposals via RPAS. Whatever the name (UAV/RPAS or even ‘drone’) this pioneering sector is one of the fastest growing and most dynamic in aviation (See ‘Unmanned future’, AEROSPACE, December 2014).

Just in the UK, there are now 483 registered operators and, by the time this appears in print, may have even nudged over 500. What is more is that the explosion of civil uses and public interest in RPAS, means that even the dreaded D-word — 'drone' no longer mentally conjures up an armed Predator. Today drones (mainly multicopter types) have gone mainstream — and there are predictions that civil UAS could be a trillion dollar industry by 2032.


However, the fast growth of the sector, combined with tiny manufacturers and the hobbyist background has meant, until very recently, that this industry has had a fragmented voice when it comes to getting its message out and influencing decision-makers. Small UAV operators and builders were overshadowed somewhat by being lumped in with giant OEMs such as BAE Systems, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman et al, whose unmanned products were generally of a difficerent size, payload and end user.

This has changed with the formation of ARPAS-UK (Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) a dedicated professional trade organisation for the small commercial UAS industry. Says its Chairman Philip Tarry: “When I took over the Association from its predecessor, it was known as the Sub-20 Organisation. It was an organisation set up to represent primarily the small operators, who had previously never been given a voice. It was when I attended the conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society that I noticed that the smaller operators did not have quite the same recognition or visibility as the more traditional aviation sectors.” The aim of ARPAS, he says is: “To drive, essentially, unifying the voice of the industry to help the sector grow, and grow safely — both in terms of how it operates and how the public perceive it.”

ARPAS membership has grown swiftly to nearly 200 members since it was set up nearly two years ago. Only a year ago there were around 20 — a sign of its growing stature.

Training and qualification

Getting accredited training is essential.  (Sky Futures)

Flying a toy multicopter for fun in the back garden may be one thing — but how does one go about getting approval to fly a RPAS professionally for paid work? Philip Tarry explains the career route. “In the UK, the competency to get qualified has been outsourced to national-qualified entities (NQE)s. Currently there are three — EuroUSC, Resource Group, and now, Sky Futures. So the route to becoming a qualified operator and gaining your permission for aerial work is through applying to one of the NQEs to attend their ground course. Predominantly it’s a two-day course, where you learn about all the rules of the air and how to operate. You then sit a test and, on successful completion of that, you have the opportunity to develop your operations manual which dictates how you are going to do your operations, and provide your services as well and what type of services you are going to do.”

He adds: “Once that has been approved by the NQE of your choice, you will then have to sit a practical flight test. On successful completion of all three things, the NQE will then recommend you to the CAA as ‘competent to operate’. At this point the CAA will grant you a ‘Permission for Aerial Work’ and then you have the opportunity to go out and do your business.”

These accredited courses currently cost between around £1,200-£1,600 with a CAA processing fee of £133 or £226 depending on whether the UAV is sub 7kg or 7-20kg, respectively. Finally, there is an annual training renewal fee of around £90-£125. While this may seem expensive for some, the alternative of being caught using an unlicenced RPAS for paid work could mean a hefty fine and a maximum of up to two years in prison.

Rules of the air

Small UAVs are opening up new possibilties to capture amazing aerial footage but knowledge of the rules is vital. (Paul Hary)  

However, despite these regulations and threat of stiff penalties, there is an extremely positive relationship between ARPAS, representing its members and the CAA. Tarry, in particular is fulsome in his praise of the UK CAA in enabling this dynamic new industry to grow safely and responsibly. “I would like to thank the CAA. They have been so open-minded for this kind of development.”

Indeed, this relationship is already about to pay off, with a new type of approval template for use in urban areas, much demanded by small operators. Says Tarry: “Upon us requesting to the CAA that that they facilitate the reduction of proximities (because most of the business is within London for various media jobs or surveying buildings) – it’s obviously impossible to get the permission of every person and building within a 50m radius of your operation. They developed a new template, to be able to facilitate that called the CAOSC (Congested Areas Operating Safety Case). Within that, it is essentially a more detailed version of your operations manual. It goes right down into looking at whether your aircraft is fit for purpose. Potentially, it requires the operator to explain why their aircraft is safe to operate within closer proximities than the ones that are stated within the Air Navigation Order. It’s a clever little template, because it actually goes beyond just allowing people to request more closer proximities — and, of course, the kind of businesses looking to get those will predominantly be media operators, who are looking to film for broadcast TV or some such.” This higher standard of approval for urban and congested areas is a critical breakthrough for the industry and remarkably foward-looking. Explains Tarry: “It could potentially facilitate beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) if you are able to provide all the evidence that you can do that operation safely. “He adds: “That is actually quite a cutting-edge development within the regulations for us. An exemption hasn’t been facilitated yet but there is one soon on the horizon. From there, we’ll be able to give further feedback on how the process is working and how it is supporting the businesses within the UK.”

Contrast this with the situation across the Atlantic, where the FAA is receiving flak for delaying the commercial exploitation of this technology and it is clear that the UK small UAV industry benefits from an enlightened regulator. Tarry agrees: “From my perspective, I would suggest that we are the best industry in the world to come to fly and operate, because we have the most flexible and supportive regulator.” Referring to the CAOSC proximity template he says: “I don't know of many other regulators that have responded within half a year to a request from an industry trade organistion.”

Choosing your drone

Buy or build? For some operators, building or customising their UAS is part of the attraction. (Chris Honeyweell)

So once qualified, which UAV do you choose? There is now a bewildering choice of unmanned systems, both in premade and kit form and ranging from quadcopters to fixed-wing designs.

One key bit of advice, says Tarry, when choosing a RPAS system is to focus on its end purpose. Decide on the use, camera or sensor first, then the airframe. He explains: “The most important thing is to really understand which market you are going for and what the users needs are going to be. Then choose the appropriate aircraft.” For example, he notes: “If you are going to go into agriculture, although they do use multirotors for visual inspections, it is more likely that the fixed-wing is going to be more appropriate. Therefore, if you hadn’t done your research and ended up with a multirotor, you may well have wasted some money.”

But he believes the quad- or octorotors really consitute a revolutionary capability. “The multirotors really are a new form of aircraft, because whereas we have had single rotor, collective pitch-controlled helicopters for a number of decades, it's really down to the simplicity and redundancy, thanks to the stabilisation delivered through the computer and the flight computer.”

But he emphasises that any budding ‘drone entrepreneurs’ must think sensor first, platform second.

Market realities

Have drone, will travel? Despite the lure of exotic filming locations, the market is tough. (James Keith)   

However, Tarry is quick to warn potential UAV operators that there is no ‘get rich quick’ path to millions. The market is tough and evolving. Buying a RPAS able to deliver quality footage or data is expensive and the vagaries of the UK weather means it cannot be used 365 days a year. If you are only flying your aircraft 100 days a year, that means to make your outlay back, you need to be charging a reasonable daily rate. Add in perhaps two operators (one pilot, one camera operator) and travel, and it mounts up. Operators, therefore, says Tarry, need also spend time to educate the market and potential customers that, while UAVs are currently perceived as a budget source of aerial footage, they are not that cheap.

Another misperception from customers may be from where RPAS are allowed to fly — especially if they have seen footage from unlicenced drones in foreign countries flying over crowds or in urban areas. Paradoxically, the greatest demand (for example TV, news or media) at the moment comes from the most restrictive operating environment — that of urban areas such as London.

Tarry observes that the most successful operators so far are those that already have an existing business (for example, surveying) and use the capability of RPAS as an additional tool to generate data.

Future trends

Regular industrial/business type RPAS work will predominate according to Tarry. (Kurnia Aerial Photography)

Tarry observes that, as the market evolves and matures, there may be a few operators that drop by the wayside, unable to keep up. The introduction of the CAA's CAOSC congested areas 'licence' will also create a new tier of RPAS operators, able to tackle the most demanding jobs in urban areas.

He also foresees that media and commercial aerial filming work will also be joined increasingly by industrial type work — such as oil rig or wind-farm inspection. For savvy operators, he notes, these sort of high-paying high-worth routine tasks will be the ‘bread and butter’ of RPAS operators, with the more ‘glamourous’ freelance jobs, such as filming extreme sports or wildlife documentaries being fitted around this. “Oil and gas companies’ budgets tend to have a lot more money than a small media production company looking to use a RPAS for a couple of aerial shots.”

Tarry also predicts that fixed-wing UAS will also increase in popularity — after beyond line-of-sight rules and technology are introduced. “Once those regulations are developed, and we have the technology to support that — then the proliferation of fixed-wing drones will develop as equally as multirotors.”


You might be using a drone for fun, but you are a wider ambassador for the small RPAS sector. (DJI Phantom)

In short, it is no wonder that this is one of the most dynamic areas of aviation right now. The seemingly unlimited opportunities and boundless energy are drawing fresh blood in all the time — in an atmosphere reminiscent of the pioneering days of aviation. Enthuses Tarry: “The possibilities are endless.”

Additionally, it is also clear that the UK, unlike some countries, has been blessed with a forward-looking regulator which has anticipated the rules for this embryonic industry. That it has already begun to adapt them from input from ARPAS and operators to allow safe, controlled, unmanned aerial work in congested areas is even more impressive.

Yet there are challenges. Some would-be RPAS operators will fall by the wayside in what is, despite appearances, a tough market. Educating customers and end-users as to the limitations and costs is another issue. Finally, there is the problem of illegal drone users — who by careless or reckless flying may undo good work by responsible operators. Says Tarry: “As soon as you buy an aircraft or obtain approval, you are a stakeholder and an ambassador. It's everyone’s responsibility.” And despite a noticable public and media shift in perceptions over ‘drones’, from sinister spy planes and assassins to cool aerial gadgets — there still remain issues over privacy and data collection.

But with ARPAS — this fragmented and diverse, but dynamic and exciting sector — now has a unified voice — and one which has safety and responsibility at its core.


Interested in RPAS, UAVs or drones? Don't miss this free RAeS lecture (in partnership with the IET and IMechE) on RPAS Applications, 11 March. More details here.

What is ARPAS?


In any profession, it always pays to be a member of a trade organisation for a number of reasons and for the growing commercial UAV industry, there is the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (ARPAS-UK).

Set-up nearly two years ago, membership to ARPAS-UK has increased two-fold; this is because industry members have realised that working together with like-minded professionals and being part of the ‘community’ and getting support when needed, has become an important part of running a commercial business.

UAVs, now commonly known as ‘drones’ have been in the forefront of news coverage for the past few years — for both good and bad reasons. This coverage has two effects on the industry — it encourages new blood into the business and creates new interest and opportunities but, on the downside, opportunists copy what they see and ignore the important rules and regulations set out by the CAA. This is something ARPAS-UK is committed to dealing with.

The non-profit organisation has been set-up to ultimately represent the small RPAS industry with the aim of growing it or, as its slogan states: “To create a unified voice that pushes for growth as leaders in this industry.” Its key aims are:

1. Create a unified voice by co-ordinating sector representation and develop a forum for businesses to collaborate, promote safety standards and take a leading role in influencing opinion on RPAS legislation.
2. Work with the CAA to secure the regulatory environment to ensure that commercial operators can fly and facilitate new business opportunities.
3. Drive higher safety standards and set the example of best practice, to enable end users to easily identify the most appropriate operator to hire.
4. Improve and protect the public and commercial perception of this industry.

Chairman, Phil Tarry says: “To effectively secure the future of this embryonic industry, we have taken the initiative to actively highlight what is important for our members. Many lives are already reliant on a stable industry in which to invest and society deserves to benefit from a technology that can facilitate so many positive things.” ARPAS-UK also plans to improve and protect the public and commercial perception of the industry, talk with suppliers to reduce costs for operators and, more importantly, assist members get new business. This will be done by helping operators bid for tenders through an independent and formal recognition of competence created by the association. (

3 March 2015