Preparing the world for
a future with drones

Spotlight On: Sam Gillespie, Over The Top Drones

We spoke to Sam Gillespie [@samgfilms], filmmaker and director of Over The Top Drones, about the trials and tribulations of commercial drone filming & photography. With a background in photography, Sam moved into the world of filmmaking and took the leap to aerial work after obtaining his PfCO in 2018. Having worked on everything from construction to motorsport to marathons, Sam had some great tips for anyone looking to get started as a paid pilot.

Sam Gillespie

Image by Daniel Arkell

How did you get involved in drone work?

I left a corporate job in 2017 to pursue my passion for photography. That very quickly morphed into video work and then, over three years ago, I decided I wanted to start offering aerial drone filming and photography commercially. I’d been flying recreationally for about a year at that point, and in 2018 I did the PfCO training. Drone work initially started off as a bit of an “add-on” to my video production business at the time, but it’s become one of the offerings I’m best known for.

Sam Gillespie

What kind of drone work do you do now?

There are essentially two types of drone jobs I carry out. The first is acting as a drone operator/supplier on large-scale productions where we will either fly the Inspire 2 (with dedicated camera operator) or carry out the filming with a Mavic-series drone plus spotter/observer. Files are offloaded or sent to the client and that’s where our involvement ends. The second is the full-package, start-to-finish work with clients where we’ll carry out all the pre- and post-production, etc. As for the industries, it’s been everything from construction to property companies and automotive… the beauty of aerial drone filming is its versatility across sectors.

And which area do you enjoy the most?

The automotive stuff is always pretty fun. Challenging, but fun chasing cars/bikes at full speed. And it always looks cool in the showreel!

How much time do you spend flying, versus planning and post-production?

Not enough I don’t think! Of course, living in the UK, a lot of what we do is weather dependant. We had a job back in February that we had to push back three or four times because of the rain, wind and snow on different days.

When I started out, pre-flight planning would take quite a long time, but once you’ve done a few commercial jobs, you know what you’re looking for. One tip I’d give to people starting out: don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. I’ve done jobs at the end of one of Heathrow’s runways. I called up on the Monday and had permission ready to go for the shoot day on Wednesday. These things can often take much longer though, so it’s often a case of managing the client’s expectations of what is possible at short notice.

I’ve been able to secure Operational Safety Case, or “OSC”, permissions for Over The Top Drones which means we can not only operate at reduced distances (on take-off/landing and in-flight) but also at 600ft (subject to various conditions being met as part of those permissions from the CAA). This opens a lot of doors in terms of where we can operate in congested areas, but the pre-production time on these jobs is of course typically much longer due to the increased risk and all the mitigations that need to be put in place.

What advice would you offer pilots starting out?

I’d say work on getting a killer body of work. A lot of people do the training, then they’re wondering why the phone isn’t ringing, but you’ve got to work on building that network. Every time you take a great shot, post in online, show everyone you know. Every time you meet someone, tell them “I’m into drones”, people always find it interesting as it’s still pretty novel. And maybe the people who see your post or hear your stories don’t need a drone operator today, but six months down the line when they do, they’ll remember you and you might get a call or message.

Sam Gillespie

I’d also recommend focusing on shooting the kind of work you want to do. By that I mean, if you’re just shooting roof surveys, it’s going to be hard to do travel photography, because your clients are going to want to see it in your portfolio. When I wanted to break into the construction industry, I approached a small local company and got some great footage of them with heavy-lift cranes which I was able to show as an example to one of the UK’s largest construction companies. I’m sure that’s what got me the job.

How do you think the industry has changed?

I think the barriers to entry are lower now. You can pick up a Mini 2, fly in a city with just an A2CofC. Camera quality is so good nowadays also, for less than £1,000 you can be getting stunning, 4K quality video.

Sam Gillespie

Are you using The DronePrep Map?

I am. I use a few different applications for pre-flight planning, one of which is DronePrep. What’s great with DronePrep is that if you’re really struggling to find somewhere to take off, you can quickly find landowner contact information on the map. I’ve used that in the past to get in touch with landowners near me, it’s a very useful service. Another good feature is just how quickly you can get latitude and longitude positions if you need to run a NOTAM search. And being able to see all the local landmarks that you might want to consider when planning a flight – schools, police stations, that kind of thing.

And looking to the future?

Drones are here to stay and I’m hoping that people’s hesitancy towards them is going to diminish with time. I’m sure the number of people working in the industry is going to skyrocket – not trying to make a pun there! – and I hope there will be a better environment for both recreational and commercial operators.

A lot of operators are going to have to update their fleets when the class marks come in to operate in congested areas or at big events. The rule changes have been a lot for us to get our heads round, and I’m probably in the same camp as a lot of pilots who are still operating under legacy permissions from the old PfCO. So that means at the start of 2023 things are going to change again, and we’re going to need to go down the GVC route.

As for the work itself, you can see people are starting to use drones for all sorts, like 3D-mapping of buildings, or to help inform decisions on renovations. However, I’m firmly on the creative side of things and much prefer shooting moving objects!

Sam Gillespie

Image by Tom Kahler

Follow Sam on Instagram and see more of his work on his website:

Spotlight On: Stu Logan, Unmanned Air Veterans

Following an extensive career in military drone use, Stu Logan and business partner Tom Hubbard launched Unmanned Air Veterans Ltd. Working on a range of projects, from film shoots, to construction, to warehouse inspection, Stu is working to connect with other veterans and improve drone education and perception.

What is Unmanned Air Veterans’ mission?

Our mission – as corny as it sounds – is to be the best that there can be. We are a drone service offering creative media, inspection, analytical work, and movie/TV work. We also run an online group to connect with other veterans involved in drones, so we can talk and share ideas. There are a few of us, all involved in different areas of the industry, and as our business grows, we’re keen to get more involved in the education and training side also.

How did you get involved in drones?

Both myself and Tom served in what was the premier drone regiment in the world. When I joined, the kit was basic, nothing was in real time and there were no live feeds – then as technology improved, I was involved with all sorts of trials and the use of more and more semi-autonomous kit. It was a very colourful, entertaining, and challenging twenty years, and when I finished my service I thought – right, that’s what I’m going to do. Although we served in the same regiment, Tom and I were in different units, so we didn’t know each other too well. It wasn’t until we got out and we bumped into each other by chance. A guy I played football with happened to be working with Tom, so I knew he was in the area, and then a week later while I was out walking the dog, I ran into him taking his daughter to work. We haven’t looked back since

What kind of work are you involved in?

It’s been really varied. Ten years ago or so, you started seeing aerial shots with drones on TV, Film and music videos, the nice stuff. Then on sports, especially golf. Mainly because it’s cheaper than getting a helicopter. I think we had this idea that we’d film loads of golf courses in the UK – and we have done some golf courses – but the industry has changed so much in the last few years that we’re having to adapt all the time. Transport of goods and warehouse work (virtual tours) are two areas we’re starting to see more and more interest in. Construction and mapping are growing really quickly too. I would say that movie work is where we’ve personally been quite lucky, and is something we can really get into and there are projects on the horizon for us. Our first job was actually for an indie horror flick, and working on that was a real “pinch yourself” moment. Note: You can see the trailer for KARLI here:

How does commercial work with drones differ from military operations?

I would say the biggest challenge is not necessarily about finding or doing the work, it’s more about the restrictions that we didn’t used to have. We always operated on a “get that done yesterday, do this now” kind of approach, everything’s very quick, whereas now we have to wait around to do jobs. We can get itchy feet while waiting!

How can drones help veterans?

When you transition out of the forces, you can feel like there’s something missing – a kind of sense of self-worth, of being a part of something. We have both gone through our own channels to get help with diagnosed PTSD, but we found that doing something that you really enjoy for a business, having something to focus on, it really helps with that feeling of self-worth. It’s important to give that opportunity to people like myself and Tom who struggled with the transition, and helping people in similar situations lets us give something back to society.

You mentioned education and training. Can you tell me a bit more?

We’ve been invited to local schools to do open days. We did an event with an SEN (Special Educational Needs) school. Some of the teenagers had severe ADHD, Asperger’s, and other learning difficulties, but they were really interested. There was one young lad who came to see the kit, and his carer came up to me after and said – this is the longest I’ve seen him static, doing something and fully engaged – and the feedback was really good. In the future, we want to introduce drones properly to GCSE-age students and to show that this could be a real career route, to encourage work experience opportunities. Longer term, we would love to offer training courses so people can really get to learn all the skills you need to be a drone pilot. I have an idea for this, hopefully in the next 5 years it will happen.

What are your hopes for the future of the industry?

I would like the negative stigma associated with drones to go away. I want people to not be afraid of the industry. People worry over safety, the invasion of privacy, flying over peoples’ gardens and that kind of thing, which is understandable. I think to get there, we need to see a mix of community engagement, hearts and minds, and also more clamping down on people that are being irresponsible. There needs to be some clarity on who to speak to if there is an incident, who is going to enforce the laws. It will make people feel a lot safer. We in the industry also need to be out there making videos and using social media to help the public see what’s going on. I love sharing positive news about drones, and it’s important to show people outside the industry that drones are being used for good.

Find out more:
For more about Unmanned Air Veterans, check out their Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

Spotlight On: Richard Nichols, Airwards

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Richard Nichols, founder of Airwards – the online awards platform recognising and championing the impactful use of drones. Richard finally has a moment to take a breather after a busy Winner’s Week, so we decided to catch him for a chat about the work behind Airwards, how the idea came about and where he sees the industry heading.

What is Airwards?

On the very top level, what the Oscars do for films, what BAFTA does for TV, I want Airwards to be doing for drones. There’s so much positive work going on, both inside and outside the industry. We’re identifying these positive user stories, recognising them through an award and championing them to acknowledge the work that they are doing. We want it to be an acknowledgement that what a company is doing is innovative, is responsible and is having a real-world impact.

How did you get involved in drones?

I started my career at AgustaWestland (now Leonardo). I was there for three years, really enjoyed it, but I wanted to move up to London, so I joined my old business partner and we started Vitamin London (a digital agency). We were right at the forefront of the app and responsive website revolution, which was amazing. After leaving that a few years ago, I ventured into freelance work helping start-ups with their strategy operations. While doing this, by chance I met a guy – Joe from VisualSkies – who at the time was doing some work for Rolls Royce. I talked to him more and more, and got involved with the company. I loved seeing how this technology was being used from their side: videography, photography, lidar scanning and especially 3D modelling.

I guess around that time, I was thinking about my experience of recognition in the digital world, and I was wondering – is there something like that with drones? There are a couple, but they are sporadic, vertical-focused, and nothing like I had seen in other industries. So that’s where the idea came from. Then covid hit, and I thought, right, I’m sat on this idea, why not try it?

How did you get it started?

So probably about April 2020, I started reaching out to a few people. I spoke to my immediate connections through the defence industry and people were super-friendly. The fact that we had the ethos, the vision, and that we are not-for-profit made it an easy decision for people to want to get involved.

How did you decide on the categories?

It was tough. I think it was about two months of work. Last year, I started off with 120. We cut it down to 80, down to 50, again talking to people involved, and eventually got it down to 23 main categories and 7 people’s choice (30 in total). The Oscars, I think, have 28 categories. There are some that we missed out, there are some that we had to merge, and we didn’t want to try to do everything. One of the first things I did was to get in touch with everyone who I might consider competition and just say – Hey, I’m Richard, this is what we’re doing – I’m not trying to step on your toes! It was really trying to make sure that it was about fostering collaboration, rather than competing.

How many submissions were made?

We had just over 200 in total across all 30 categories of people’s choice shortlist and main category submissions, and after whittling down it came to about 100, a fantastic response for our first year!

Are there any particular projects that stood out?

Total cop-out: all of them. Teaching kids to code in drone, preventing wildfires, rescuing fawns, BVLOS, dam inspection, even the anti-drone projects. The two-way communications blew quite a few judges’ minds. Having expert judges look at use cases and say “I didn’t know this was happening, and I’d consider myself someone who’s been in the industry for 15 years!” was fantastic to hear.

That’s what I loved the most, is that if you’ve got experience in a particular vertical, you’re able to say – This was my favourite, because it’s my background, my history. Everything else is cool, but for me that has a real personal attachment – So yeah, sorry for the cop-out, but there definitely isn’t just one!

What was the most difficult part of pulling it off (especially during a pandemic)?

The remote working we were kind of used to by that point, so that side of things didn’t really have as much of an impact. Probably for me it’s been finding corporate partners – and that’s probably a very obvious one to go for – but it’s been entirely self-funded this year. Getting to really know projects that are going on and trying to talk to so many people around the world was both hard and rewarding. Being able to connect with some of the big people in drones is almost as big a deal as winning for a lot of the people involved.

What are some big areas you see as being ‘up and coming’ in the drone world?

I think autonomy and having constant data flow, that is going to be where businesses see the value, particularly in survey and inspection, reducing the time frames of finding a problem, live in real time, and finding a fix. Those two, and obviously BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight), so not having to have someone constantly within eyesight of the drone.

What’s the plan for next year?

We’re going to keep the general structure and idea, but refine it so it doesn’t put as much pressure on the judges. And vice-versa for the entrants. But fundamentally the categories, judges, process, being online – everything else is going to stay the same. We have some huge plans however on championing each of the winners and getting their stories infront of the industry and public – so watch this space and our website + social channels.

And what’s next for you?

I think we’ve pretty much got a process for next year, and we’ve talked to a few of the judges, but I want to collate all their feedback, and we’re still getting feedback from entrants. There’s been a period in June where we’ve given people a break from Airwards, but expect to see us back with a bang in July gearing up for our Year 2.

Find out more

For more about Airwards and to see this year’s winners, check the official website:
You can also find Airwards and Richard on LinkedIn.