When it comes to selecting a drone service provider for your aerial media needs it can be a daunting task. The industry is in the very early stages of growth so reliable recommendations and reviews can be hard to come by.
With drones becoming cheaper the barriers of entry are low and many are jumping in to the game putting out their Drone Aerials shingle with little to no previous experience. As a result, pricing alone is not always the key determining factor for selecting the best provider for your needs.
The true measure is in value provided and getting an end product that meets or exceeds your expectations and is done safely. Not all aerial media is made the same, low quality visuals can directly impact your brand and image.
As with any outsourcing you need to choose wisely who to work with and who you want to develop an ongoing relationship with. The following are some key factors to take into account before hiring an aerial provider.
Within Canada all commercial drone use is regulated by Transport Canada (most other countries have similar regulatory bodies, such as the FAA, CAA). Operators must follow these regulations to operate legally. In most cases in Canada this requires the operator to have what is knows as a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). If the provider does not have one (or doesn’t know what it even is) then you should avoid using them as you could potentially be liable in the event of an accident while on your property. It also indicates their general lack of knowledge on the regulations or a decision to ignore them completely. (In some instances an Exemption can be used, however these apply mainly in very rural locations so most often cannot be used.)
If the provider does not have what is called a Standing or Blanket SFOC (these are open long term certificates) already in place and relies on operation specific certificates then you could have to wait for 20 days up to 3 months+ for approval for your specific work. Those holding Standing SFOCs are generally able to work with very short notice as no further processing by Transport Canada is required. Be sure to ask what sort of SFOC the provider holds and what if any lead time may be required before the actual aerial work can be done.
Also SFOCs are regionally granted, so ensure the operator you are looking to hire has one for your specific location as there are multiple regions across Canada.
Along with the SFOC is the requirement for UAV aviation specific liability insurance. Make sure the provider has the proper insurance in place (general liability coverage is not sufficient) and that the amount covers your particular needs and policies.
It should be a warning sign if an operator has no insurance (which is mandatory for the SFOC and Exemptions) or has only the minimum ($100,000). UAVs are complex systems and failures do occur making insurance not only mandatory but a smart item to have in place.
Drone based imaging systems are becoming cheaper every day as the technology advances, quality runs the full range from hobby grade through to Hollywood feature film grade.
One system is rarely best for all applications, there are pros and cons to each in terms of quality, size, speed, flight time, safety features, weather conditions, location, and so on. A properly equipped operator will have multiple systems, allowing them to use the right tool for the job.
Be sure to ask about the systems and especially the cameras being used as this will impact the final media that is shot. If you have specific requirements around resolution, codecs, and other media specifics, be sure to ask if they can meet those needs or what alternatives they can suggest.
Some UAV camera platforms allow for separate pilot and camera operations, which allows for much more dynamic camera movements over a single pilot system, where one person is trying to fly and frame the shot, a difficult task especially for video footage.
A live video feed from the camera is also important so the crew, as well as the client, can see the footage in real time as it is being shot. This allows you to see first hand and make any adjustments and ensures the proper footage is captured before the final recorded media is reviewed. Newer systems provide high definition views which greatly improve this.
Another important factor is if the provider has backup systems and gear. Equipment breaks and drones crash. If the provider only has a single system then your project could quickly be delayed if something goes wrong.
Also does the provider maintain their own equipment or do they merely use off the shelf turnkey systems with little to no understanding of how they work. Being able to repair minor issues to keep a project moving forward can be critical when deadlines are tight or when specialized systems are needed for unique jobs.
The drone industry is very young and quickly evolving so there are new players coming to the market every day. As such previous experience may be limited for many. Aerial imaging is as part art and part science and becoming proficient and mastering it takes time.
Review previous work the provider may have done to get a feel for quality and style. Even new companies with limited real world experience should be able to put together a demo of their own work to show their skills and abilities.
Previous experience and industry knowledge also goes a long way in how they can assist you in defining your specific needs. If it is your first time dealing with aerial imagery it may be hard to envision what the end product will look like or what will work best for your needs. An experienced provider will be able to provide you with suggestions and alternatives to make the most out of the aerial media they are collecting for you. If the provider doesn’t offer this sort of input into your project then it could be a sign of limited experience. Unless you have dealt with aerial imaging before this can be one of the key factors in who might be best to hire. Many new operators merely move the drone from point A to B on request, while more experienced providers can get the most out of the shot with dynamic movement and unique perspectives. Working with the provider to develop a shot list early on in the discussion is a good approach to take and one the provider should suggest.
The indirect drone” experience a provider has is also of great importance. Aerial imaging is a combination of many technologies and skills (IT, engineering, aviation, photography/videography, risk management, consulting, etc.) Breaking into the industry with no experience across these core areas makes it a steep learning curve, as a lot has to be learned on the fly. Teams that have backgrounds in those area will have a leg up in the industry, leveraging related experience and applying it to the drone industry, leading to a more solid core operation.
Crew & Roles
Under most circumstances a typical drone aerial crew is composed of 2-3 members. For most uses Transport Canada requires a minimum of 2 people – pilot and observer/spotter. In the case of a system with a dedicated separately controlled camera gimbal a 3rd person is typically involved. When working in urban areas with more people in the vicinity additional crew may be required for maintaining safety.
For smaller less critical jobs or photo work a small crew can get often the job done, however a larger crew allows for much more focused work which in the end impact the quality of the footage captured. Having a dedicated pilot and camera operator allows for much more dynamic shots and movements with both working together to move the aircraft and camera.
On larger jobs the bigger crew allows for more dedicated focus on tasks and allows quicker turn around time between flights. It also provides additional resources when dealing with moving between multiple shooting locations and when issue arise.
How a company presents and conducts themselves outside of the obvious flying aspects is also a critical factor in assessing their overall ability to service your needs effectively, on time, and in a professional manner. How they reply to general questions and response time on emails/calls, can say a lot about how they operate and their level of business experience and professionalism.
Many providers getting into the industry have little to no previous business or consulting experience, and this can potentially impact how they deliver on your project and handle issues that might arise. Their experience in dealing with the regulations, insurance, safety and other elements may be impacted by general lack of knowledge in the day to day running and managing of a business.
There is a lot of time and effort that goes into a successful aerial project long before and after the drone is in the air, thus having an aerial consultant that can properly manage things end to end is a key to the overall success of delivering on your specific needs on time and within budget. Many get too caught up in the wow factor of the flying and come up short on the less fun aspects..
Safety & Operating Procedures
Due to the nature of aerial drone work, safety is a critical element of any operation. How a provider plans and manages is of critical importance. This is also a core part of the SFOC, documenting all operating and emergency processes and procedures.
Ask potential providers what procedures they have and what safety precautions they will be using for your project and location. If the provider has little to offer then it may be a warning sign of limited experience. This goes hand in hand with the Restrictions & Limitations of drone use noted below in showing overall industry knowledge. Incidents that could occur during a shoot could impact not only the provider’s reputation but that of the client as well depending on the seriousness of the accident.
Restrictions & Limitations
While drones offer a great new way to get aerial imagery there are restrictions and limitations on when/where/how they can be used. The most common are:
- Cannot fly over crowds of people or public Ex: an outdoor event/concert.
- Must maintain a distance of 100′ from any people, vehicles, buildings not part of the operation.
- Cannot fly over private property without permission of the owners.
- Typically restricted to a height of 400′ or less.
If an operator makes no mention of these or has no hesitation to break them then it may be a sign of a cowboy operator that should be avoided.
Weather is also a critical factor for using a drone safely & effectively. No precipitation is generally needed, and high winds can ground or limit the use of some systems. The provider should also take into account the time of day for the location being shot to get the best lighting to highlight the subject. Be sure to factor in alternate days for weather delays into your planning with the provider. A seasoned operator will bring these issues to you, one that does not may have limited real word experience and failed to consider beyond the immediate needs of a single time and place.
Drone vs Traditional Aircraft
While drone technology offers a great new way to get unique aerial media it may not always be the best solution. Some aerial work is better suited to traditional full sized helicopters and airplanes, such as collecting imagery of a large area like miles of coastline, or higher altitude shots over congested urban or inaccessible remote regions.
A drone is just another tool in the toolbox; knowing when to use it is the key to using it effectively. Drones can often do the work of traditional aircraft and beyond but also have their limitations. Professional operators will point out such limitations and offer alternatives based on your specific needs, while new entries to the industry may try and do everything with a single tool.
Many new to the industry offer low-ball rates to try and get a foot in the door, undercutting the more established providers on price alone to make up for lack of experience. This however is a hard way to run a business and many of these up start businesses may not be around long.
Many neglect to account for all the actual hours involved in a project from end to end, which will not doubt impact the overall quality and care put into their work. When the novelty of flying a drone wears off and realities of running a business come home it will be interesting to see who may be left.
As with choosing any contractor or consultant, it can be a challenging task to choose the best one for your needs and budget, but with a bit of research you can reduce the risk and hopefully find a provider that meets your current on ongoing aerial needs beyond and gives you unique dynamic engaging imagery to boost your brand or project.