Confused about whether you need your PFCO or your PFAW?

If you have been researching drone training you will have come across a number of different terms; PFCO, PFAW, BNUC-s, CAA, etc. etc. and are probably a little confused right now. Well, don’t worry, we are here to help you see the wood for the trees.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Actually, go and get a coffee first. This’ll still be here when you get back.

We often get asked if we can get people their drone licence or drone qualification? Did you know, in the UK, there is no such thing as a drone licence, or an official drone qualification?

The piece of paper you need to operate a drone commercially in UK airspace is called a Permission for Commercial Operations (PFCO). Until August 2016 this was known as a Permission for Aerial Work (PFAW). PFAWs will continue to be around until August 2017 as existing PFAWs will be converted to PFCOs on renewal.

In order to get your PFCO you have to demonstrate to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that you are capable of operating safely in UK airspace, bearing in mind that our skies are a pretty busy place. So you have to demonstrate a few things to the CAA:

  1. Theoretical competence
  2. Practical competence
  3. Operations procedures (Ops Manual)
  4. A minimum of 2 hours flying in the 3 months prior to application

The ways of demonstrating these are shown on page 47 of CAP 722. If you already hold a manned pilot licence,or model aircraft qualifications you may be exempt from one or more of the above items.

For most people, however you will have to go to one of a number of CAA approved National Qualified Entities (NQEs) who can assist you with the first three bullet points above.

Warning, gratuitous plug for ourselves:

The Aerial Academy became a full NQE in October 2016, having been a restricted NQE for over a year and an operator since 2012. All our trainers are ,or have been, commercial drone operators in the UK, so we understand the practical application of the regulations and are really well placed to educate new pilots. We even got in the news look!

Plug over.

NQEs have training programmes that are approved by the CAA. The theory has to cover a set CAA syllabus and there must be a flight examination to show you can operate safely. Your NQE (pick us!!) will normally provide a theory course and exam, assist with preparation of your operations manual and carry out your flight examination. The different NQEs do this in slightly different ways, so the theory training varies from 1-3 days with differing amounts of online learning and self-study. The practical flight tests are all fairly similar. They don’t just test your flying, but the whole operational process from risk assessing a job through to flying and then post-flight checks and logs.

By the time you have finished your NQE course you should have a much better understanding of UK drone legislation and how to safely operate your drone in UK airspace.

So, your chosen NQE (us, right?) will help you with 1-3 above. We can also help you with practical flight training as well. That is not a requirement of the CAA but we can build practical flight training around your certification. We have been delivering drone flight training for a few years now under HexCam and there are some drone training testimonials on the HexCam website. With links to most of them so you can see they’re real and still going.

So, you’ve got 1-3 covered and then gone off to fly to build up your experience. What next?

As a full NQE, we can help you apply to the CAA and provide a recommendation that you are competent to operate in UK airspace. The CAA will accept recommendations from any of the full NQEs so thy don’t care if it is a BNUC-s, RPQ-s, UAPQ-s , a TAAC or whatever. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, the CAA has just provided standardised certificates for NQEs to give to candidates to demonstrate competence to the CAA.

I hope that helps to a degree. We can also advise on drone equipment as well if you need us to.

So a basic order for becoming a drone operator in the UK (assuming you don’t have any of the exemptions mentioned earlier):

  1. Write a business plan (a very important step most people don’t seem to think about)
  2. Choose your NQE (enough hints I think)
  3. Attend theory course and exam
  4. Complete operations manual (on our course you’ll do most of that over the two days)
  5. (Carry out flight training if necessary)
  6. Attend practical assessment (our fee includes insurance for your flight assessment)
  7. Obtain commercal drone insurance
  8. Complete application to CAA
  9. PFCO takes 4-5 weeks to be issued.

At some point in there you may need to source equipment. Let us know if you need help with that.

Costs you need to take into consideration:

Your drone: Probably £500 – £10,000 depending on your application.

Certification by a full NQE: Ours is £950+VAT, others vary a bit higher or lower, but do check what is included. There is no CAA requirement to renew your certification annually but you must maintain recency (about 2 hours flying every 3 months).

Insurance: £450+ per year depending on equipment. It is a young industry with a lot of unknown risks as far as insurers are concerned, so insurance can seem high at first.

CAA fee: Initial registration 0-7Kg – £112, 7-20Kg – £224. Renewal is annual and is at half the original fee.

If you are a manned pilot wanting to enter the drone industry, do give us a call to discuss what you need to do to.

Fly safe!

Any questions please call on 01603 881985 or email

Elliott – The Aerial Academy




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