"My mate Dave's just bought a Phantom and says he'll do the job for fifty quid"
Every professional UAV pilot has heard this one a few times. And we've seen the results - they're usually not very pretty. Because although Dave's got a drone with a camera, he has no idea how to fly accurately or safely, and knows next to nothing about photography. Oh, and he's also uninsured, and will involve your company in some interesting legal issues if it all goes horribly wrong. And he's not even legally allowed to take your £50 in any case. But he'll be happy to do it.
That's the short story. Here's the long story:
Safety, Legality, Insurance - how to make sure it all goes to plan and no-one gets hurt
Before hiring a UAV operator to carry out UAV photography or survey work for you, you need to ask a few questions:
Firstly, does their pilot hold a Civil Aviation Authority "Permission for Aerial Work" (PfCO)? This document is a legal requirement for carrying out commercial aerial work with a UAV. All commercial operators with a PfCO have been trained in flight planning and safety, the safe and legal use of airspace, and the safe use of UAVs. A PfCO is only granted after passing both a written examination and a practical flight assessment. A UAV "operator" who doesn't hold a PfCO has had none of this training and evaluation, and cannot be expected to know how to plan or execute UAV flights safely or legally. If you knowingly hire an unqualified UAV pilot and the flight ends badly with someone getting hurt, your company could be involved in an HSE and/or CAA investigation along with the operator.
Secondly, are they insured for commercial work? All experienced business people know how important it is to have the correct insurance in place - accidents can happen at any time during the course of routine business operations, and the consequences can be disastrous for a business which isn't properly insured. All PfCO holders have specialised insurance for UAV operations which covers them and their clients against any claims which might result from an incident. These special UAV insurance policies are only available to PfCO holders, so by definition an unqualified operator is also an uninsured operator.
So, before hiring a UAV operator, you should ask to see a valid, current PfCO certificate and a current UAV operator's insurance certificate - any qualified operator will be happy to show you these documents. You can also check their validity by looking them up in the CAA list of approved UAV operators here.
Remember, an operator who cannot produce a current PfCO certificate is like a commercial delivery driver who doesn't hold a driving licence - would you hire that driver to work for your company?
Survey - how to ensure your survey is accurate
When you commission UAV survey work it's important to check that the UAV operator knows how to plan and conduct the survey flight correctly, and how to process the imagery afterwards to give you the data you need at the correct accuracy and resolution, and in the right format for your planning or GIS software.
Any UAV operator can use easily-available flight control software to set up a "survey grid flight" and have their UAV perform it automatically. This looks very impressive, and can give the impression that the operator knows what they're doing. Unfortunately, there's more to flying a survey than simply setting up a flight path - camera settings and flight path parameters are absolutely critical to getting good results. Once the flight is complete and the survey imagery has been captured, the images are post-processed in specialised photogrammetry software to generate your survey data. This is a complex procedure requiring a knowledge of both photogrammetry and surveying; it's not just a matter of pressing a "Go" button and waiting.
So here's another question to ask your hopeful UAV survey operator before placing your project in their hands: Ask what transformation they use to convert WGS84 coordinates to OSGB36 - this is an important part of the photogrammetric survey process, and any competent photogrammetrist or surveyor will be able to give you an answer. If they look blank, move on and avoid wasting your time and money.
Our UAV pilot has been trained in photogrammetry at The Survey School (the training establishment of the The Survey Association, accredited by The Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors).
Photographic quality - why do you charge so much?
Some people think that all it takes to produce stunning, beautiful photographs is an expensive camera - go out and buy a smart camera and you too can be a pro! This is far from the truth (though the camera manufacturers would like you to continue believing it!). In fact, the quality of images produced by any photographer, amateur or professional, is down to skill of the photographer, and owes little to the type or make of camera they have. Most professional photographers can make better images with an iPhone than others can produce using the most expensive cameras and lenses available. The photographer's skill comes from years of practising and honing his or her "photographic eye" - the ability to find and compose a striking image, the skill to find the best light for the subject, and the skill to translate their vision from 3-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional image. These are skills that take time to develop, and it's these hard-won skills you're paying for, not just for someone to turn up with a drone and a fancy camera.