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In-house or outsource drone operations

One common question we get asked as drone consultants; Should we hire someone to do our drone ops, or do it ourselves in-house?

As with most things, there are pros and cons for each.

What do I need to consider if we do the work in-house?

Apart from the obvious things like buying the hardware, getting training and certification, if required, there are several important things to consider.

Generally, when the decision is made to do the work in-house, it usually is not the decision maker that is the one doing the drone operations. It may seem like a simple enough decision, but there are important factors to consider from an employers point of view.

Who will fly the drone(s)?

Identifying someone within an organisation to be the drone pilot, or depending on the size of the organisation, lead the drone team, can be a simple case of asking around if anyone one is interested in taking on the job.

That seems straightforward, but at this point, its unlikely the person is aware of the burden of this role. It is not their or anyone’s fault; the perception often is that its a case of going out and taking pictures or video with the drone.

The reality is, there is a lot more to it than that, we will address that later on.

What training do they need?

When the person or people are identified, the next step you should look at is, do they need training? 
In Ireland, there is no mandatory requirement for training, depending on the weight of the drone to be used. Sub 4kg drones, can be used commercially without training, although training is recommended.

There are limitations for operating without training, and your location or core operating area will likely determine whether you need formal training. If you plan on using drones in towns or cities, near airfields or military bases, for example, you will need training and certification. You are required to hold a Specific Operating Permission (SOP) to apply for permission to fly in these restricted airspace areas.

There are a number of flight schools around the country. The course is a 2-day ground school training, and you will need to pass an exam, at a later date. When the exam is passed, you need to complete your Operation Manual, gather all required information and proof of Insurance and send to the IAA.

If approved, you will receive your SOP and can then apply for restricted airspace approval via UF101 forms.

What Insurance do we need?

Although there is no minimum mandatory stated for Public Liability Insurance, it is recommended to be at least €2 million.

You will need a specific policy for drone operations.

Will my existing Public Liability Insurance cover me?

No, a standard PLI policy will not cover the use of Drones/UAVs. There are specific policies with there own limitations and requirements. You need to purchase a policy specifically for drone usage.

Can I cover my drone as a tool on my insurance?

You can yes, and if its stolen you may be compensated, but you are not covered for drone operations with this type of policy.

Do I need employers liability insurance?

If you don’t already have it, which you probably should at this point, you may need to increase coverage if you introduce drones to your operation. Simply put, drones can be dangerous and introduce more risk.

We recommend you discuss this with your insurer or broker to ensure you are correctly covered.

What hardware should we buy?

There is no simple answer to this question. What you need to determine is what you are looking to achieve through the use of drones. If you just want aerial photographs and video for marketing purposes, there are a vast range of consumer drones that would fit the bill.

If you’re going to do aerial mapping or survey work, you need to consider more factors. Flight time, weight, camera parameters all come into play. If you are looking at mapping vast areas, you probably need to consider a fixed wing. If you need advice or guidance on what best suits your needs, give us a call or email, and we will be happy to discuss and recommend. 

Do I just need a drone and i’m good to go?

Well again that depends on what you are trying to achieve, but in our experience, no. For example, if you want to take aerial photographs or video, that will be used in promotional material, you will need to edit the pictures or video. The aerial images and video you see online, do not come straight from the drone. It has almost certainly been post-processed.

So what else do I need?

A very good PC for starters, and the software packages to go with it. Most consumer drones today can shoot in 4K resolution. This is great for capturing detail and giving the high-end look. It is, however, very resource intensive on a PC. A general office PC would not be capable of running the software to edit and render these files.

4K gives great flexibility to crop and zoom the footage, giving a more professional end product. You will also need software to edit the footage.

There is a myriad of applications for photo and video editing, but the Adobe suite of Lightroom, Photoshop and Premiere Pro for video would be some of the most widely used. These are licensed products and cost money to purchase or rent. 

I want to create aerial maps, what do I need?

Again, compute power is what you need. The data captured to create aerial maps, called data sets, can be very large, hundreds if not thousands of images. On a recent mapping job, we gathered almost 15000 images. Aerial mapping works by capturing lots of images and stitching them into one large map, or orthomosaic as it’s called. This is very PC intensive, and particularly GPU intensive for certain operations within the process

A high-end PC or server may be required if you want the most control. There are cloud-based options, but you do not have the flexibility and control. Either way, there is a cost associated. This software can be expensive. You can purchase outright or rent it month by month in most cases.

You also need to know what you are doing. The explaination above may oversimplify the process. These applications are complex and you should consider training courses to get the most our of your investment. 

Anything else I need to consider?

Storage. A key component in any drone business is storage and lots of it. Drone images and video are large.

Depending on your drones capabilities, data is captured very quickly and accumulates very fast. High-end cinema drones can capture terabytes of data within an hours flying. Granted this is the extreme end of the scale, it adds up very quickly. Video and mapping data can be large.

You need to process this and store it. Ideally, your PC will have SSD drives for the processing phase and offline storage for archive.

You will need a few terabytes of storage to start with, and this should be configured for resiliency. 

So in summary what does running drone ops in-house mean for my business?

Whether you have one drone or a fleet of them, there is a lot of paperwork and compliance that goes along with it. If you have gone down the route of training your employees to do the work in-house, you enter the Aviation arena of planning and compliance.

Safety is the primary concern. Flights are required to be planned and a risk-assessment completed for each drone flight. Depending on the size of your operation, this can become cumbersome. Part of your SOP, requires mission planning, risk assessment, Airspace authorisation if required, flight logging and aircraft maintenance. Your flights have to be within the limitations of your SOP and are detailed in your Operations Manual.

The Chief Pilot listed in your Ops Manual maintains overall control for ensuring flights are conducted within these bounds. This is where the buck stops, so the person nominated as Chief Pilot, needs to understand the implications of the role. They are responsible for ensuring other pilots complete the all necessary planning and paperwork as per the Ops manual.

The Ops manual is where the detail is. Distances you can fly to, altitude limits, amount of time you can fly, breaks required etc, should all be contained in this master document.

Regardless of the nature of your business, we strongly recommend you have a public liability insurance policy for drone operations. You do however need the training and certification to hold a valid policy, but this is protection for you and your business. 

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