The future of drone pilots

Perhaps it is something that needed saying – and now somebody has said it aloud.

Just a Remote Pilot Licence is not enough to give somebody a rewarding career in the drone industry.

Like the founding Editor of sUAS News says, it is just like acquiring a driver’s licence for a motor vehicle and expecting to make a living out of it.

A licence on its own is simply not enough.

Of course, we know there are taxi drivers and haulage truck drivers who can genuinely claim to eke a living out of their driving skills – but that is not Gary Mortimer’s point.

Because the fact of the matter is, the above-mentioned drivers have had to acquire other special skills that set them literally a class apart from the rest of the race of humanity that hold a driver’s licence.

Defensive driving skills for one. British Formula 1 driver Jenson Button was thankful for these when he came face to face with a threat to his life in Brazil in 2010.

And that is Gary’s point.

“Once again I will upset folks; drone driving is and will become more of a button push-only exercise,” Gary wrote on his sUAS News online publication.

“I have been triggered; here in South Africa, a course provider will take a small sum from your youngster to give them a taste of the brave new world to come and a certificate as well.

“South Africa already has far more trained commercial drone operators than it needs, which is a costly process here. They (prospective drone pilots) are lured in with the promise of lucrative work and largely not told they need a ticket for their company as well to be completely legal.

“It’s at this point they give up and the next round of fresh-faced hopefuls arrive.”

We are not sure where the number stands right now, but in June last year, South Africa Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) statistics had the number of RPL holders at 3,496. And it is a fact that many, many more have spilled out of pilot academy doors since then.

Local individual drone professionals and drone services companies have been trying their best to provide new pilots with additional skills to add to their piloting ones. Just this past week, drone technology evangelist and UAV Aerial Works director Kim James was handing out drone pilot resumes among her circle of drone professionals, in a bid to help new pilots secure employment.

However, it is a fact that – unless it is used for delivery or for crop spraying – a drone is only as good as the quality of data it collects. And the quality of data a drone collects is largely dependent on the person behind the controls. For all the good drone technology does, it is useless when placed in the hands of people who have no idea how to harness all its data collection capabilities.

“What the industry lacks worldwide are people that can turn whatever outputs that their drone provides into actionable data,” Mortimer says.

“If it’s not data, it is all just pretty pictures. So rather find out how to be a surveyor or inspector of some sort. Get hands-on with LiDAR, CAD, 3D modelling and all things digital display. There is a raft of skills to turn up with at a drone company before you have even seen one.

“This will take you much further at the interview than a bogus piece of paper from people that have never operated serious platforms.

(At this juncture, we have to mention that we do understand that we are foregoing a golden opportunity to go viral by burying the lead – in another world, in another lifetime, we would be screaming that a renowned drone technology writer thinks an RPL is bogus piece of paper.

But then… meh. That is not Gary’s point at all. We might not take ourselves too seriously, but we have a modicum of standards. We are not a football blog that thrives on innuendo and clickbait controversial takes intended to generate clicks and hits.

Besides, we do acknowledge the important work drone academies do in introducing drone professionals to the very basic tenets of drone use).

“Of course, I think the world of droning has a future, just make sure you know exactly what the market needs before you start spending money on training.”

And knowing what the market needs is the reason why the programmes like the Drone Business Masterminds, a masterclass on how to harness drone technology as a business and turn it into a viable business.

The masterclass has nuggets that will educate prospective entrepreneurs on the relevant skills they need to make a career out of drone technology. It goes way, way beyond just being a drone pilot.

Twelve weeks long, the course will not bullshit one about cutting corners – it will take one through what one exactly needs to make a success of the drone game; warts and all.

After all, there is a real danger that piloting skills on their own are already becoming obsolete. The arrival and proliferation of drone docks and remote command centres where one operator can control several drones at one go should be enough warning that the industry is moving away from human pilots.

We think there is a vast opportunity for drone entrepreneurs in Africa that goes beyond just piloting skills. We have not even scratched the surface on the engineering side of the technology yet; as a continent we are still consumers of drone products. We have not explored the opportunity to build our own drones yet. We have not explored the software engineering processes or the original equipment manufacturing side of the industry yet.

But these are stories for another day. Our drone of reason today is the call for prospective drone technology professionals to heed the dangers of stopping only after the acquisition of drone manoeuvring skills in the belief that they alone are enough for today’s drone economy.

They are not.


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