Drone camera hovering over city during a building inspection
  1. What qualifications does the drone operator hold?
  2. Do they have relative PI & PL insurance and required drone insurance?
  3. Can they provide case studies and references?
  4. What outputs do you need and what can the drone company provide?
  5. What specialist area or areas does the drone company offer?
Drones have been around for a while and their uses are constantly evolving. Each drone operator or company offer different services and cover different locations in the UK or overseas. If you find the need to hire a drone services provider, then here are some tips to assist with your procurement decision.

1. Qualifications

All people flying drones in the UK, including for leisure, must have an Flyer ID which is obtained by the pilot passing a basic course online to allow them to fly in the ‘Open Category’.

Commercial drone companies must have at the minimum:

  • A flyer ID
  • Operator ID (which must be visible on the drone)
  • An A2C of C certificate (to fly drones of size up to 250g)

2.Insurance

At a minimum commercial drone operators need to have passed an A2C of C or GVC to obtain requisite drone insurances. The insurance type is specified by the CAA and requires that the insurance includes the clause known as EC785/2004.
As standard each company should have Public Indemnity and Public Liability (PI&PL) to a level that is required for your organisation and/or relative to the risks that the project requires.
In addition, it is recommended that the company have employer liability insurance, particularly if they are a drone company rather than an individual drone pilot who is working self-employed or alone without a team.

3. Case Studies and References

Some customers prefer that their details are not shared or used as case studies. However, in many cases non-sensitive information can be redacted to allow a drone company to share overall details in the form of case studies for you to see the quality and type of work they can create.
Reviews, particularly independently verified reviews, are often visible on the providers website, social media platforms, other platforms such as Checkatrade, Trust a Trade and Google.

4. Outputs

This is a critical requirement. When considering hiring a drone operator providing a clearly defined brief will not only assist you to filter out providers who cannot deliver for you but also ensure the operator is clear on how they need to plan, choice of drone(s) and software to deliver your project and carry out post-production.
Following are some examples of outputs and the very minimum you should check for with the drone company to ensure they can deliver what you need for your project:

Photography/Video

High Resolution HDR Drone Photography Ariel view
How will the images you require be used? If on social media for example the resolution doesn’t need to be so high but if it is for TV/film then a much higher production level will be required. The quality of the images that are captured is determined by the drones inbuilt camera(s) resolution, sensor or the payload camera(s) that the drone can carry. For high quality photography such as HDR the operator must also be skilled in other areas such as how to use bracketing to create images to meet your brief.
It is also worth noting that for filming and photography, as with the ground based disciplines, commissioning a drone pilot who also has skills and experience in photography/filming is going to yield better results.

Thermal Inspection

Drone capturing thermal images
Certain drone companies have equipment that give an indication of the thermal properties of a building or specific area e.g. roof, solar farm. The most common method is to use thermal imaging cameras (sometimes referred to as FliR cameras which are a manufacturer), either built into the drone or added to the drone as a payload to carry out the task. The drone does not measure ‘actual’ temperature it captures through the difference between infrared light being received by the camera at different points of the surface being inspected via the thermal sensor. The more accurate the sensor, the more accurate the results – so for larger assets like facades, roofs, solar panels a basic sensor will give sufficient information. For other assets such as powerlines or faults on railways much more accuracy is needed.

Building and Asset Inspection

Drone inspections for solar farms and wind turbines specialist drone services
Visual and video imaging is often sufficient to identify issues or faults that are visible (thermal will assist to provide less visible information). Higher accuracy projects e.g. Heritage building inspections for reparations, will require increased accuracy and outputs.
Assets might include cellular towers, powerlines, wind turbines and other detailed equipment requiring a higher level of accuracy and sharing of the ‘project’ to specialist teams. The operator needs to plan these in conjunction with the reparation team to ensure all relevant elements are captured and to a level that allows the team, sub-contractors to analyse the outputs and the project manager to be able to control how issues are tagged.

3D Modelling

3D Modelling by drone of new housing development
Often used for building and asset inspections, planning of new developments (as the files can be output to CAD/AutoCAD) and so forth. As previously mentioned, with all drone capture projects the level of accuracy can vary significantly and it depends what level you require as to which provider is best for you to select.

Land Surveying by Drone

Land Surveying orthogram using drone technology
Requirements for surveying range dramatically but the key consideration is the level of accuracy, ground sampling distance (GSD) measured in +/- cm that is required for your project.
Many well-known drones are sufficient for some basic surveying where, for example, a basic orthogram (overhead view of an area) is required. This may be sufficient to look at land boundaries or other general surveying, but the accuracy will be based on how close and high the drone can fly, camera sensor and a range of other factors.
There are limitations for example if the drone is reliant on fixing its position by GPS (the same as a mobile phone does) which has too broad of an accuracy level to be useful for detailed planning e.g. for construction, civil engineering or assessing details to +/- 1cm.

To increase the accuracy level ground stations, similar to those used in traditional surveying are required that work on either a system called PPK/RTK and/or LiDAR.

5.Specialist Areas

Drone operators tend to ‘niche’ and specialise in one or many disciplines based on their skills, experience, equipment. The following list is not exhaustive but alongside the points above may include:

  • Photography – basic, professional, billboard images
  • Videography – basic, advert creation, TV or film production level
  • FPV – first person view filming a.k.a. ‘fly throughs’
  • Surveying – basic, advanced, surveyors (who have trained for drone capture), agriculture, rivers and coastal, land contouring, quantity surveying
  • Building modelling – 3D point clouds, mesh creation
  • Building and Asset inspections – basic, powerlines, solar farms, wind turbines, oil rigs
If you would like any further advice, then we would be more than happy to discuss your requirements with you. We don’t deliver all the specialist areas but know other teams in the UK that do, and we are happy to refer you to them.

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City view Drone shot captured by the S4G Drone Services team