Zero to 400: A Beginner’s Guide to Drones, Part 3 – Understanding Drone Qualifications

Zero to 400

Zero to 400 is a record of my journey from casual observer to (hopefully) confident drone pilot. This isn’t a guide to legislation, and I’m certainly no expert on the ever-changing world of unmanned aviation. I hope these posts can serve as a casual guide to the novice pilot and answer the basic questions from anyone interested in drones.

So I’ve read the Drone Code, got my Flyer ID and done a bit of flying. What’s next?

I would love to dive into a post about getting the hang of controls, or taking great pictures, but before we start that, I’d like to talk about the other qualifications available to both hobbyists and commercial pilots.

Before we look at the certificates themselves, let’s understand why we might need them.

Flight Categories

The CAA (Civil Aviation Authority), who regulate drone use in the UK, have decided to distinguish between different types of drone flight by splitting them into three different categories of flight. These are based on the level of risk in the flight, so they consider factors like proximity to other people, weight of your drone, etc.

These three categories are called Open, Specific and Certified.

The Open Category is for low-risk flights and does not require any special approval from the CAA.

The Specific Category is for higher risk flights and requires operational authorisation from the CAA.

The Certified Category is for even higher risk flights, with larger aircraft and a similar level of regulation and authorisation to manned flights.

I’m going to wager that the majority of drone flights carried out in the UK fall under the Open Category. The Open Category is divided into three different subcategories – A1, A2 and A3. I’ll try to keep this brief:

A1 – “Fly over people” – very lightweight drones, very low risk.

A2 – “Fly close to people” – lightweight drones, a little more risk.

A3 – “Fly far from people” – heavier drones, but further away.

You can fly most drones in the A1 and A3 categories without the need for extra training – you just need to get your Flyer ID and read your drone’s user manual. The logic here being that A1 is only for very small or toy drones, and A3 is away from the risky spots. There’s a great table here from the CAA that breaks down the different drones and types of flight.

CAA Open Category

Jump to the last column and you’ll see that for anything in the A2 category, and for one class of drone in the A1 category, you will also need something called an A2 CofC Theoretical Test.

 

The A2 CofC 

The A2 CofC (Certificate of Competency) is a training course and qualification. It consists of four modules and covers the basics of meteorology, the principles of flight and best practice for safety and risk management. Both the course and theory exam can be completed online, with the qualification lasting for 5 years before renewal.

The A2 CofC is popular for pilots who are flying small drones in relatively low-risk areas. It’s quick and cheap to complete – the test takes 75 minutes, costs less than £100 and you can find cheap training courses online. Or you could just self-study and take the exam straight away. Once completed, you are pretty much covered for flying in the Open Category.

If you want to move on to the Specific category, you’re going to need a bit more training.

 

The GVC

In order to get “operational authorisation” (permission from the CAA) for Specific category flights, you need to have completed another certificate called the GVC.

The GVC (General Visual Line of Site Certificate) is the next level up in drone qualifications. There’s a theory exam and practical test, plus the requirement to create an operations manual and follow the procedures.

The GVC is aimed at commercial pilots flying heavier drones in more high-risk or complex environments. It’s slightly more expensive and time-consuming, but it’s a must-have for pilots looking to fly outside of the limits of the Open category.

Important! This is all really, really new

Something I quickly realised when I started reading about drones is that the UK legislation all changed fairly drastically on 31st December 2020. So from 1st January 2021, there were big changes to the rules and the whole industry is still in a transitional phase as these changes are put into practice. The drone classes (C0, C1, etc.) in the table above aren’t even being used properly yet, as far as I’m aware the manufacturers haven’t yet produced any drones with these marks.

Prior to regulation D-day, something called the PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operation) was the go-to training option for pilots. The CAA used to separate recreational and commercial work in its regulations. Commercial pilots were required to have completed the PfCO in order to fly for work. The CAA no longer distinguishes between recreational and commercial flying when considering pilot training, so in theory you could fly commercially with some drones in the Open Category using just a Flyer ID. One area where there is still a distinction is in insurance – pilots flying commercially must have third party liability insurance for their flights.

If you completed a PfCO before the changes, it will still be valid – so long as you don’t let it lapse. For any new pilots, following the Flyer ID the big options for further training are now the A2 CofC and the GVC.

What else do I need to know?

There’s a lot more to learn about UK drone legislation and how the categories work.

Click here for the CAA’s guide to flying in the Open Category.

Map Desktop VersionLandowner Permission

And don’t forget, even with your qualifications, you will still need to get Landowner permission to take off and land when flying a drone in the UK.

Check out the DronePrep Map, our free platform for pilots looking for places to fly. We’ve pulled together all the data you need as a pilot; FRZs, Power Lines, Foreshore, Railways and much more. You can plan your flights on our map, then check for drone access policies and get the contact details for Landowners. 

Zero to 400: A Beginner’s Guide to Drones, Part 2 – Getting a Flyer ID

Zero to 400

Zero to 400 is a record of my journey from casual observer to (hopefully) confident drone pilot. This isn’t a detailed guide to drone legislation, and I’m certainly no expert on the ever-changing world of unmanned aviation. I hope these posts can serve as a casual guide to the novice pilot and answer the basic questions from anyone interested in drones.

Step 2 – Getting my Flyer ID

Let’s start with a caveat: I’m not planning to buy a drone right now. I just packed up my life abroad, moved 5,000 miles during a pandemic and bought a car, all in less than two weeks. Any further big decisions are postponed until the dust has settled on the current ones.

Fortunately, my lovely colleagues and friends around the industry have plenty of drones to play around with, so I just need to get myself a Flyer ID – the driving license of droning.

 

Preparing for the Test

The CAA’s website tells me that in order to get my Flyer ID, I’ll need to pass a 40-question multiple choice test. The test has a pass mark of 30 (75%) and should take around 30 minutes to complete. I can retake the test as many times as I like, so there’s not much pressure there.

Before beginning, I take a quick look back at the Drone Code to see what I can remember from the first read-through.

I enter and verify an email address, and am asked whether I need to register for an Operator ID also – not today!

 

Taking the Test

The test itself is very much like the Drone Code – a lot of common sense and some pretty straight-forward answers.

There are a few questions designed to make you think twice – especially those that refer to scenarios with several different drones of different classes. Some of the questions end up reading like a school math test (“John has a 2kg drone, and Sarah has a 5kg drone, they are flying within 200m of a built-up area…”). I noticed for a few of these questions the figures are relevant, but for some the figures are just designed to throw your off (e.g. all of the pilots are flying legally/illegally).

Some of the questions encourage you to consider the reasons behind an answer (No, because… Yes, because…) and you’ll need to get that part correct too. Imagine I ask you something like: “Should I fly my drone within 20m of a school playground?” and you are offered the answers: “No, because the kids might steal your drone” vs. “No, because flying within 150m of a built-up area is not permitted” – you get the idea.

It takes less than 10 minutes to complete and – would you look at that – a perfect score of 40/40!

 

Receiving the Flyer ID

I’m asked to enter in some further details – name, address, phone number (optional) and my Flyer ID is generated immediately and emailed to me.

It’s noted both on the ID and within the confirmation email that I can fly under the A1 and A3 subcategory – that’s the “basic, low-risk flying” for those of you who haven’t studied the Drone Code yet.

My colleague tells me that if I want to fly in higher-risk categories, I’ll need to complete further training – I guess that’s next on the list!

 

Zero to 400: A Beginner’s Guide to Drones, Part 1 – Learning the UK Drone Code

While living in a student house in my early twenties, airborne “toys” were all the rage. A handful of classmates bought cheap quadcopters to spice up days at the park. One of us had the smart idea to buy a tiny RC helicopter, which was mostly used to terrorize the housemate who refused to do any washing up. Working in the aerospace industry, I met colleagues who were into drones, and I was lucky enough to see some of the more expensive models in action for R&D projects.

I don’t remember any discussions being had over laws or regulations, but, then again, I don’t remember my mother complaining about nosy neighbours flying over the garden either.

Fast-forward to 2021 and after a long stint abroad, I’ve just returned to the UK to discover the world of drones has long-since moved on. Operator IDs, FRZs, class marks, categories… There’s a lot to learn for the newcomer and a stark contrast to what I’ve seen in other countries.

I’ve decided to document my progress, from complete beginner, to at least somewhat competent in the rules and regulations.

If you’re new to drones, or even visiting the UK with a drone in-tow, I hope this guide proves of some use.

 

Step 1 – Learning the Drone Code

Before entering any details, or taking any tests, or even thinking about buying a drone, I was directed to the Drone Code as a “starting point”. Thanks colleagues for the heads up!

The Drone Code appears to be a summary of all the UK laws and regulations related to drones (and model aircraft). It saves you the hassle of trying to decode lengthy legal documents. The Code is published by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and takes the form of a ten-part guide available online.

Diving into the first section – Getting what you need to fly legally – and the biggest change since my early drone encounters is the requirement to register your drone. But perhaps the word register is a bit misleading, as what you are actually doing is applying for two different types of ID: an Operator ID and a Flyer ID.

 

Operator ID

Think of it like a car number plate. Except, you could use the same number on all your cars simultaneously. And it could be either 9 or 17 alphanumeric characters. And it’s registered against your name. And it costs £9 a year. Okay, it’s not quite a number plate, but you get the idea.

Unless the drone is a toy, or it’s really small and doesn’t have a camera, you probably need an Operator ID. Luckily, as mentioned above, you can use the same ID for all your drones, so the most you are going to pay as the owner of a whole fleet of drones is £9. As an operator, you are responsible for managing and maintaining the drone(s), and you are responsible for making sure anyone you allow to fly them has a Flyer ID (see below). Unfortunately for our younger readers, this is an adults-only registration – so you’ll need to find someone over 18 to register as the operator.

 

Flyer ID

As well as registering to be the responsible “manager” of the drone, you’re probably going to need a Flyer ID (unless you are only flying very small drones). The Flyer ID is like a driving license, in that it allows you to fly all C1-C4 class drones, not just the ones you own. If you want to fly someone else’s drone, you’ll need a Flyer ID – even if they are the registered operator of that drone. Under 18s can do the Flyer ID too, and there’s actually some great guidance from the CAA aimed at the parents/guardians of drone-flying kids.

The Flyer ID requires passing a short theory test online. Fortunately, it differs from a license in that it’s free, and there’s no practical test involved. Flyer IDs are renewed every 5 years. Let’s assume this is to keep up with any future legislation changes.

 

Flying safely and legally

The rest of the Drone Code offers rules and guidance for safe and responsible flying. Some of the wording is strong and clearly lifted from legislation (you must not fly when under the influence of alcohol, you must not fly over people). Other parts appear to be recommendations, or just things to watch out for (standing out in the sun could affect your ability to concentrate).

Much of the guide feels like common sense, but there are a few rules I wasn’t aware of. For example, you’re given extra leeway on the height limit when flying over a structure, but only if you’ve been asked to carry out some kind of task related to it – like photographing a wind turbine, for example.

The guide has these great little vector illustrations of all the rules, so it’s pretty easy to follow. After about 20 minutes, I feel like I have a basic idea of what can and can’t be done while flying.

I would recommend reading through the Drone Code in its entirety, it doesn’t take too long. The last section of the Code offers links to the full legislation governing drone flight – which includes the EU regulations alongside the CAA’s Air Navigation Order (plus its amendments).

You can find the Drone Code online here: https://register-drones.caa.co.uk/drone-code