With the blessing of the FAA and other regulators, the new era of commercial drone deliveries has launched. Robert W. Moorman investigates the training of professional drone operators.

Google the words “drone pilots” and you’re bombarded with numerous advertisements by training companies offering their services to help prospective pilots pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 test to fly drones commercially.

The pitch varies. “Need a drone license? Pass the test the easy way.” Another teaser is more cryptic: “Drone Pilot Training – 100% privacy protected.”

Unlike requirements for professional pilots of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, securing a professional drone pilot license from the FAA is relatively easy. Candidates are not required to demonstrate adequate flight skills or pass requisite courses to become commercially rated drone pilots. Just pass a written test, and you’re good to go.

With the demand for professional drone pilots increasing exponentially, CAT explored the training available today, how extensive it is, the involvement of regulatory agencies and aviation interests and which companies are hiring these ground-based pilots.

Drug Drops by Drone

For years, civil drones were mainly the province of hobbyists. Now various businesses, including UPS and Amazon, are testing the use of remotely piloted aircraft to enhance their businesses. The widespread use of drones for commercial purposes is coming sooner than some might expect.

Recently, UPS Flight Forward, a subsidiary of UPS, and CVS Health announced the first revenue-generating, residential deliveries of medical prescriptions by drone. The November 5, 2019, flights were launched from a CVS store in Cary, North Carolina, and flown to customers’ homes. The drones flew autonomously but were monitored by a remote operator, who could intervene if necessary. The UPS delivery was conducted under Part 107 and did not require a waiver as the delivery was made within Visual Line of Sight of the remote pilot, said the FAA.

The FAA awarded air carrier and operator certification to UPS Flight Forward in September. Under Part 135, UPS can conduct package delivery, beyond visual line of sight, without a waiver. Any limiting factors would be specified in the Operations Specifications, said the agency.

To operate under Part 135, a company needs Economic Authority from the US Department of Transportation, as well as a Part 135 certificate and Operations Specifications from the FAA. The Operating Specification includes numerous operating limitations that could later be amended. UPS has for some time delivered blood and specimen samples to WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. As of this writing, UPS had delivered more than 1,500 revenue-generating flights.

The latest UPS deliveries from CVS to residences demonstrated that drones are likely to become an integral tool of business and other endeavors and will require a corresponding need for trained drone pilots. As of last month, there were more than 100,000 Part 107-certificated drone pilots.

The employment opportunities for drone pilots seem limitless. Once trained, drone pilots can work for businesses involved in agriculture, search and rescue, security, entertainment, news gathering, telecommunications, mining, mapping, law enforcement, aerial photo power line or pipeline patrol, fire and rescue, among others.

Minimalist Requirements

Lacking, it seems, are government-mandated comprehensive training standards for professional drone pilots, who will one day share the same airspace as other fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.

“Part 107 doesn’t go very far,” said Brian Wynne, President and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “If we are going to integrate into the airspace, we have to demonstrate that we are just as safe as everyone else.” That said, “we want to have standards that are appropriate to the operation,” adding that it is unnecessary to require drone pilots to obtain the same level of training as, say, an airline pilot.

What does the FAA say about the call for additional training for drone pilots? The FAA issued this statement to CAT: “…The agency has established requirements for drone pilots operating under Part 107, and those requirements are appropriate at this time.” The statement continued: “More complex operations are generally conducted only after obtaining a waiver from specific requirements contained in Part 107. The operator must demonstrate that they can fly safely using alternative methods, which may include training specific to the proposed operation.”

It is important to note that obtaining a waiver does not necessarily require additional training for drone pilots. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, Section 350, requires the FAA to establish regulations, procedures and standards to facilitate safe operations of UAS (unmanned aircraft systems).

Going Beyond

Two ongoing professional drone pilot training programs seem to pick up where the FAA leaves off. UPS offers one. [See Big Brown’s Additions on page XX]. In addition, AUVSI and its academic partner, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), with input from industry leaders, developed the Trusted Operator Program (TOP), a competency-based certification program for drone pilots. TOP certifies that the operator has met the requirements outlined in the TOP Protocol Certification Manual (PCM).

TOP pertains to two major audiences: professional-level drone pilots and organizations that use drones. The program offers three levels of instruction. Level 1, the lowest level is seen as slightly above the Part 107 test, while Level 2 and Level 3 require a practical flight evaluation.

Level 1 involves flying in a remote environment and doesn’t include any waivers. Level 2 could include a waiver and does not necessarily involve flying in an austere location. Level 3, the highest level in terms of risk and complexity, requires an exemption or waiver for beyond visual line of sight operations, flight over people, nighttime operations and flying over critical infrastructures.

“The TOP program supplements the Part 107 remote pilot certificate by having industry standards and competencies to demonstrate drone pilots’ flying skills,” said Dr. Joseph Cerreta, Assistant Professor, Department of Flight, ERAU. “This certification is recognized by many industry members as a necessary standard above the FAA minimum standard of only a knowledge exam.”

The TOP program focuses on a certification approach for commercial UAS operators to increase safety of flight and differentiate those operators that have demonstrated a known competency from those that haven’t. TOP is getting a lot of attention from various industries and associations.

Amazon approached ERAU about having their drone pilots become certified under the TOP program, said Cerreta. Other organizations are undergoing certification under the TOP program; they include: Shell Oil Company, Chevron and ExxonMobil. Some organizations told the university they will only hire TOP-certificated UAS pilots even though they already have their Part 107 certificate.

Courses offered to prospective commercial drone pilots through the TOP program include airmanship principals, safety risk management, air law, use of flying manuals, checklists and standard operating procedures and basic and comprehensive weather courses.

The school also teaches a management-related course, which uses a standardized set of checklists and fundamentals for performing duties of an “Air Boss,” in accordance with the TOP program.

As for flight instruction, ERAU first assesses the student’s present drone flying abilities. The students are evaluated through standards under ASTM F3266-18 - Standard Guide for Training for Remote Pilot in Command of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. For the flying component, the school uses a set of eight vignettes. The candidate is required to perform 24 different maneuvers, emergency and non-normal procedures during the tasks. It takes about one hour for a student to complete the flying assessment. ERAU offers blended options for the TOP courses: face-to-face and a blended online and face-to-face instruction format.

Traditional Trainers

Some well-known leaders in the training arena now offer drone pilot training. Others are monitoring developments in the field.

FlightSafety International offers training for the Part 107 Remote Pilot License Written Test. The eLearning course is designed to help those who want to obtain an FAA Commercial Remote Pilot License. The trainer’s Safety Management Systems course for UAS Professional Aviators and UAS Flight Risk Assessment Tool is designed for drone operations and supported by FlightSafety’s FlightBag application.

In January 2019, FlightSafety began practical flight training for drones at its various learning centers across the US. Those include: Advanced Remote Pilot Proficiency Series – Course 1 and 2, with industry-specific courses as well. In addition, the company offers customized training courses online for drone operators, including Crew/Cockpit Resource Management (CRM).

FlightSafety was selected by Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs (CNSP) to provide unmanned systems training, including the eLearning Part 107 test preparation, UAS Essentials Library, and Practical UAS Instructor-led training. The partners are also coordinating FAA WINGS credit through the University of Alaska-Fairbanks FAA UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP).

CAE, a leading training solutions provider, does not train prospective drone pilots. Nor does Frasca International, a maker of simulators and training devices. Yet these and other companies recognize the growth opportunities for the training industry.

“Clearly, pilots of remotely piloted aircraft need to be trained and simulators are one way to do this,” said John Frasca, President and CEO of Frasca International. “The same safety arguments that apply to conventional aircraft simulators would also apply to simulators for remotely piloted vehicles. We will keep our eye on the [drone] market and look for opportunities.”

The UK uses a permission method rather than a license format, dubbed Permission for Commercial Operators (PfCO). Numerous UK-based training organizations have demonstrated to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) their ability to teach and certify prospective drone pilots through their ground and flight schools. They’ve also helped develop an operations manual on how conduct a flight assessment. While these training schools use CAA training standards, they’re similar to the US-based TOP program.

AV8 Flight School Partners is the first fully online training program for professional drone pilots in the UK. The program offers virtual training and invigilation (monitoring) over the Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) examination.

Birmingham, Alabama-based ProctorU proctors the exams. The company watch the students take their tests via a webcam and screen-sharing technology to ensure students do not cheat. ProctorU provides various online proctoring and identity management solutions for education, professional development and credentialing organizations. Which the company describes as a “convenient and cost-effective alternative to traditional test centers.”

Said Jon Anderson, CEO of AV8: “ProctorU’s automated invigilation platform paired with their Live Launch service allows our students to concentrate on the actual exam and not worry about the process of getting into the exam.”

Flying a drone in France is legal, but unlike the US, every drone of 800g or more, whether it is used for recreation or commerce, must be registered, according to the French Civil Aviation Authority (DGAC).

Commercial drone pilots must pass a “theoretical exam” that can be taken online or at a specified DGAC facility. The operator must provide commercial drone pilots additional training for specific activities if necessary. Upon passing the exam, the commercial drone pilot receives a theoretical telepilote certificate.

According to McKinsey and Company, a 2017 report stated that commercial drones will have an annual economic impact of $31 billion to $46 billion on the US GDP. It will be years before the full business potential of drones is realized. But some companies now are laying the groundwork for what could become a very lucrative business for drone makers, those that use them, as well as trainers and training solutions providers.

Big Brown’s Competency-Based Additions

UPS Flight Forward might have set the gold standard for in-house drone pilot training.

To be considered for hire, the Remote Pilot In Command (RPIC) candidate must have a commercial pilot license for fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft, plus an FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate.

“The FAA told us that we set the bar high of what is expected of companies that fly drones under Part 135,” said Caroline Furse, Training Manager, UPS Flight Forward, a former Navy Seahawk helicopter pilot. “We purposely wanted our training program to be very thorough.” A lot of the Flight Forward team came from UPS’ Part 121 operation, she added.

Candidates for hire have come to UPS from universities with aviation degree programs, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, or the US military.

UPS’ training syllabus for prospective drone pilots is in line with Part 135 regulations. UPS Flight Forward is a Part 135 carrier and its drones operate with a two-person crew: the RPIC, who flies the drone, and a visual observer.

Candidates for hire must undergo a 12-day training program. Ground school classes include basic indoctrination, which cover duties and responsibilities of the crewmember, regulations and the command structure. The candidate learns about weather and meteorology, navigation, airspace and air traffic control communications and CRM. Emergency training includes dealing with handling and extinguishing fires (lithium ion battery fires particularly), as well as hijacking.

Drone-specific training looks at systems, basic procedures and systems integration. UPS Flight Forward drone pilots also must be certified as FAA repairmen, as mandated by Part 135 regulations. Installing and removing batteries, changing propellers and calibration tasks are some of the task the pilots must be able to handle on their own.

As for flight training, instructors put candidates through several “flight training events,” followed by the Part 135 competency check.

Candidates then travel to their assigned bases (with a check airmen), at which the pilot goes through two full days of operating a drone and learning standard operating procedures. Unlike some training programs, the UPS drone pilots are not required to obtain a pre-set number of hours before they can fly-the-line because of the short duration of the flights. “Some flights are fractions of an hour,” said Furse. “It’s unrealistic.”

The company flies the Matternet M2 quadcopter. Which is capable of flying packages of up to 5lbs. over distances of up to 12.5 miles. The Matternet M1 costs around $5,000 apiece. The Silicon Valley drone maker has funding from Boeing’s HorizonX Ventures, Swiss Post and the Sony Innovation Fund.

Published in CAT issue 6/2019