How little did I know about drones back in
You’d be forgiven for thinking that as a son of a British Airways pilot, my involvement in the aviation industry would be an obvious choice, but interestingly, if anything my father tried to discourage me. In his opinion, the ‘good old days’ of flying and spending lots of time abroad were over. As it was, I studied product design at university, a technical degree that was partly driven by my initial interest in the subject. I believe bad design is unnecessary and aspire to satisfy client requirements first time, and to the highest standard – a philosophy that has and will always run throughout my life.
Having graduated, I went out into the big wide world with no real idea of what it was I wanted to do. Although I had gained my degree, I soon realised I wasn’t particularly good at product design and I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life in front of a computer working to build someone else’s dream. So, having had a good chat with my sister (she travelled the world for 15 years and had a very different outlook on life), it became clear that I wanted a different way of life and as I’ve now come to summarise it; I want to add meaningful value to society while being master of my own destiny.
So, off I went for 5 years travelling the world, working 15 different jobs which included managing a bar, baking and landscape gardening. I worked ski seasons in the winter and drove tractors during harvest season, trying to discover what it was I was particularly passionate about. It was during my second ski season, while watching a ski jump competition that I saw a drone flying. The Octocopter was filming the competition and as soon as I saw that aircraft, all the possibilities of what that technology could do for society went running through my head. It was the combination of technology and possible applications that excited me. Aviation can now play a different role and add value to society in a way that has never previously been possible. Aircraft are no longer limited to carrying large quantities of people or goods from large runways, or limited to an exclusive group of privileged people who fly for fun. Almost anyone can own a drone and benefit from its functionality and ability to move in three dimensions.
Feeling inspired, I left the ski competition and went back to my chalet to research drones; from regulations to where to buy them, what to do with them and how to fly them, only to discover there was very little information available. So, with my interest piqued I came back to the UK and purchased my first drone, a DJI Phantom 1 and taught myself how to fly it, a relatively easy experience as I was already a radio-controlled hobbyist flying fixed wing aircraft.
Once I’d mastered the flying, I packed my bags and headed to Norway to volunteer as part of a film crew filming an extreme sports competition from the sky. This was an incredible experience as it was the first time I got to work with people flying octocopters. I learnt a lot about the technology and its capabilities. I came away feeling extremely excited about what the future held for drones and the endless opportunities available.
Once home I booked myself on a training course through the only drone training company that existed at the time. While I passed the ground school assessment, it left me feeling underwhelmed with the whole training process (from unnecessary content being taught to the strict didactic training method) and influenced the reason why I set up my own drone training school, where we have focused on delivering relevant content in an interactive and inclusive manner and environment.
Once home I booked myself on a training course with the only drone training company that existed at the time. EuroUSC had been founded by technical experts from manned aviation who developed a very technical course which was delivered using traditional lecturer-based training methods, in a theatre room with around 20 people in attendance.
While I passed the (memory) test, little was I to know at the time that the course was to so heavily impact my involvement in the industry.
It was during my training course that the lecturer (André Clot) told me about a drone conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society. It sounded like the perfect place to network with established industry stakeholders. I borrowed £650 from my father and booked my ticket. Thanks to a fortuitous weather forecast I was able to attend (I was working a harvest season at this point) and I turned up in my jeans and a t-shirt (my normal working attire on the farm). I was quite clearly out of place amongst the suited and booted, but while listening to people talk about flying military drones (way above my remit) the conversation turned to regulations, how they supported the industry and the future of it. Being the ‘small fish’ in quite clearly a large pond really interested me and I asked the question of why I, (the small drone operator) wasn’t represented by anyone in the room. During the networking break, I got talking with Sue Wolfe and she introduced me to John Moreland and we discussed the questions I’d been asking. They were extremely interested in my opinion as John had recently founded a new trade association ‘Sub 20 Organisation’, designed specifically for the need I had identified during the conference.
The conversation then led to leadership of this organisation. John was having to step down from the role due to a conflict of interest in his new job with EuroUSC. After a short discussion and subsequent phone calls, I became co-founder along with Sue Wolfe. I was the representative face and lobbyist, while Sue did the background work and supported me in my activities. It was only a month after the conference that I found myself at the BBC Conference for Drones, sat on a panel of experts talking about the future of the industry. While I didn’t consider myself an expert at this point in my career, the point I was trying to raise was the need for a representative body to lobby on behalf of the needs of our industry sector. Various people bought into the concept and within a couple of months I had formed a committee and things started to move.
All of this was taking place while I was still working on the farm, driving a tractor and ploughing 400 acres while simultaneously founding a trade association. When the harvest season finished, I found myself moving back home for the financial support of my parents while I founded the trade association. In the years to come I would highlight to industry stakeholders that they had my parents to thank for their representation to government and regulators, as they subsidised my £50/week salary while I focused on building ARPAS. In my crazy drone journey, I had literally gone from one extreme to another, from finishing the harvest to representing the UK drone industry in Brussels in front of members of the European Parliament!
As the months passed the committee grew as I found new people to help with different aspects of the association. At the start of the following year the temporary committee met to formalise the legal aspects and prepare for our first AGM, one of our first actions was to change our name to ARPAS-UK.
What I consider my biggest achievement during my time serving as Chairman of ARPAS was that I paved the way for the Operational Safety Case (OSC). I created a safety partnership between the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and ARPAS. The purpose was to discuss the pain points for both the CAA and our members. At the time, no standard permission allowed operations in congested areas which meant an operator would have to go to the CAA and get one-off permissions every single time. This resulted in a lot of admin and wasted time, the lack of flexibility preventing many operations due to the nature of our weather. We agreed that this problem needed resolving and the CAA came up with the Congested Area Operational Safety Case process (CAOSC as it was known at the time) which gave an operator the ability to obtain an ongoing exemption to operate in congested areas.
This was incredibly innovative, no other national regulator had enabled such a process and at this point the UK was at the forefront of international regulatory development for drones. This was soon to be renamed the “Operational Safety Case” (OSC) and broadened to include any form of additional exemption from a standard permission, another regulatory first.
With my work on the trade association underway, it was at an event in February 2014 where I met the ‘Helicopter Girls’, an operating company primarily focused on film and TV. They seemed to like what I was doing with ARPAS and appreciated my ambition. They wanted to give me work as a freelance drone pilot and I successfully passed my flight assessment in May 2014 in accordance with their Operations Manual. This was an important step, and one that I would have struggled to reach without them as I never had the confidence to write an Operations Manual of my own. This is when I officially became a fully qualified operator.
Working with the ‘Helicopter Girls’ also gave the opportunity to work on my coolest job yet – quite literally, as I filmed a band performing on an iceberg in Greenland for Jägermeister. As well as helping facilitate them becoming the first foreign operator to fly in Danish airspace, this job presented a number of challenges including flying very close to the North Pole, in very cold temperatures and taking off, and landing from a floating iceberg while piloting from a small boat!
In March 2015, I stepped down as Chairman of ARPAS-UK and an exciting new opportunity arose. I had developed a strong working relationship with Clive Bevan of Halo Aerial Imaging. He was the secretary of ARPAS-UK and also had a drone operating company. I worked with Clive to help build his company, I was the chief pilot and developed the range of services and equipment to supply them. After a year of working together as business partners we negotiated for me to buy him out of the business so I could continue to work on achieving my ambitions.
Throughout 2016, I continued to operate drones for commercial purposes while simultaneously carrying out flight assessments for a couple of drone training schools. It was during the summer of 2016 that I also became a ground school instructor for my first school. With no previous teaching experience, I had been chosen purely for my ability as a pilot and my credibility within the industry. Admittedly, to start with I wasn’t very good, but with so many courses being run I soon became quite proficient, progressing as an instructor quite quickly in a short period of time.
Personal development is a core value of my life which meant I was always looking to improve my instructional capabilities and I recognised that the way we were teaching people wasn’t very efficient, nor as effective as it could be. During this time, I started teaching for another drone training company who had a slightly different course which gave me a unique opportunity to assess what was more effective. From my own drone training experience and observing several other drone training schools and their methods of training, I now had a deep understanding of what wasn’t working.
In addition to this awareness, I had come to realise that the reason I found it difficult to develop competency and confidence in my own operational abilities was because of my initial training. Essentially the foundations I’d been given to start my operational capabilities were poor, which often led to incorrect conclusions and misunderstandings. I had to spend a long time developing myself personally and, in some cases, limiting the work I could take on as I didn’t know what a RAMS (Risk Assessment Method Statement) document was. In some cases, I had to hire in pilots to carry out the work on my behalf as I had no idea what the client required. I learnt more by observing them than I ever did during my course with EuroUSC.
My training course had helped me jump through the hoop of satisfying the CAA’s requirements, but in terms of readiness for operations in a commercial environment in front of large clients, I was not. The result was that I was unable to establish a credible business, so I pursued freelance instructor work because it was well-paid, reoccurring and another area of expertise I was developing. I also found that instructing was the best way of developing my operational capability. The old adage that in order to learn something, you must first learn to teach it, rang true.
By this time, I had a good overview of the industry; of where the sector was going (due to my previous position as chairman), varied and in-depth experience of both operating and instructing, and a strong understanding of the regulatory challenges that the CAA had. I also understood the challenges of running a small business by myself, not just the flying but the marketing, sales, website development, accounts, R&D etc. However, I found myself at a crossroad – I was having to invest in new technology and teaching myself to fly it and was just struggling to keep up as a sole trader. I looked back at the original reason as to why I got into this industry, which was to lead a different way of life in comparison to a 9-5 job. I wanted a secure income and to help make a positive impact on society.
This led me to come up with the business plan for HALO Drones which encompassed training and outsourced services, whether an organisation is looking to bring the competency in-house or outsource, they can always work with us and we can maintain a long-term relationship with the same client.