A flying drone

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PfCO, what is it and why do we need it?

Here in the Digital Learning team, we have owned a ‘Phantom 4’ drone for many years but have never used it to its full capacity. We have, however, produced a sample video to show the types of aerial footage that can be captured using it. The Phantom 4 gives us the opportunity to get overhead footage such as that used in the promotional video for the Jane Austen MOOC and Biological Sciences’ Dale field trip, and has also come in useful aiding a roof inspection for Estates and Facilities.

With expectations of building more engaging eLearning resources, it is inevitable that the drone will be used much more in the future, to meet the demands to enhance learning within the University.

With this in mind, Sofy, Paul and myself attended a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) course in order to obtain permission to fly a drone for commercial purposes. This is a legal document required to operate a drone commercially in UK airspace.

Day 1

After some pre-course study, we attended a two day course held at Phoenix Helicopters, Lee on Solent. The first day was ‘ground’ school which was broken up into the following topics:

  • Air Law and responsibilities
  • Meteorology
  • Aircraft knowledge
  • Airspace
  • Navigation and charts
  • Human factors and airmanship
  • Safety and UAV operations

At the end of the day, we had to sit a multiple choice test consisting of 40 questions in which a pass mark of 75% had to be obtained – with the threat of resit the next day should anyone fail. Luckily, we all passed (a special mention to Sofy, who managed to achieve 100%, which has never happened before according to our instructor).

Day 2

With the test out of the way, day 2 was less tense and was focused on putting the theory we learnt on day 1 into practice. Our instructor taught us how prepare for a commercial flight operation; flight planning, site assessment, risk assessment, authorisation from landowners and airports. We worked in pairs and were given 30 minutes to complete all the documents required for a past ‘live’ job: ‘Flying a drone around Brighton Pier’. Putting the theory into practice made me realise how much preparation is needed to complete a simple operation such as this and the constraints to overcome such as weather conditions, airspace and land owners permission, the health and safety to the general public and even birds.

What can go wrong?

The saying ‘Ignorance is bliss’ is certainly true. Prior to attending this course, I imagined that flying a drone was without many risks other than flying into a tree, building or pylon, and these risks could be overcome by finding an open area free of these obstacles.  This is certainly not the case. The course has made me very aware of many safety regulations and responsibilities that we must adhere to when entering air space, the most common being the general public that are using the recreation area, and not flying within 5 miles of airports. A video was shown of a drone that had crashed into a woman’s face; the aftermath was devastating and really bought home what horrific accidents can happen if safety precautions and risk assessments were not in place.  

Next step

Sofy, Paul and Mimi on drone flying practice

Our next step is to complete an Operations Manual which outlines the procedures and measures that we will put in place to ensure that our operation of the drone will be conducted safely. This document will be submitted to the CAA for approval; once this is approved, we will be able to apply for a day to take the practical drone flying test where we have to perform several manoeuvres in test conditions. Hopefully, this will go smoothly and we will all pass…. Fingers crossed.

Contact: Digital-learning@soton.ac.uk

Getting ready for take off

Mimi Lee


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