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As more drone training schools join the fray, drone operators fear steep costs of training, and exclusion

drone, drone pilot, drone school

Drone training schools in India were a long time coming. But, as more such schools receive DGCA’s approval — 9 at the time of publishing — and join the fray, drone pilots fear steep costs of training. They also fear that the steep training costs could lead to exclusion of prospective drone operators who come from underprivileged backgrounds. The government, for now, is hoping that market forces decide the pricing of these courses going forward but told MediaNama that it may step in, if it senses excessive fee-charging (more on that below).

The first school to get DGCA approval, the Bombay Flying Club for instance, is mulling to charge Rs 86,000 for its training course, which, as at least five drone pilots told MediaNama, is very expensive. Though a number of the other approved drone training schools are yet to even have coursework ready, pilots fear that BFC’s fees could become the benchmark for the other schools. Incidentally, a person from another drone training school which very recently got DGCA’s approval, told us, on the condition of anonymity, that “Rs 86,000 sounds like a reasonable sum of money…this much is okay (sic)”.

Drone pilots in India need a license to operate, which costs Rs 25,000 and is valid for 5 years. However, before they can apply for a license, it is mandatory for them to complete a minimum of a 35-hour training program spread over 5 days, which includes classroom sessions, simulator training and practical training: and the only place where they can get this training is at these training schools. In the current pricing regime, the actual cost of getting a license made adds up to over Rs 100,000, which as one pilot we spoke to said was “unfathomable”.

Of the five drone pilots which we spoke to, all had varied years of experience. While some had just started flying a few years ago, some had an experience spanning over two decades. “Fees in upwards of Rs 80,000 is so high that it makes no sense, especially for a person who’s been flying drones commercially for 25 years,” a drone pilot, who did not wish to be named, told MediaNama. “What new am I going to learn in this program? You tell me, does it make sense for someone with my experience to pay that much money for what is essentially proof of basic drone flying expertise,” this person asked.

But apart from that, there is also a possibility that drone operators from underprivileged backgrounds who might have just started out, or are thinking of getting into the industry could be possibly barricaded out of the ecosystem if the cost of training and getting a license remains this high, another pilot remarked. “Education should never be for the elite, and if the requirement to be a drone pilot is a high school certificate, there should also be a provision of providing budget licensing for emerging drone pilots. We want India to be the drone hub for the world, but for that we’d require drone pilots to come in from all sections of society,” this person, on condition of anonymity, said.

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The same pilot, who has also shot drone footage for popular films and TV shows told us that India should look at how the US handles drone training and licensing.“Look at the US, where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) charges $150 (Rs 10,500) for the license test, and with good level theory classes available at $100 (Rs 7,000)” this person said, asking, “why can we not adopt this model in India, at least for pilots who have been flying drones for several years”. They also said that the payouts in the US for licensed pilots is much higher than what pilots in India can make, which is why “it makes no sense to pay so much upfront money here”.

‘May step in incase of excessive fee charging’: Civil Aviation Ministry

After listening to the concerns raised by drone pilots, MediaNama reached out to Amber Dubey, who is joint secretary at the Civil Aviation Ministry and head of the drones division, asking, among other things, whether there was any proposal from the government to have any kind of oversight over fees being charged by private drone training schools. To this, Dubey said: “Pricing of drone training is best left to market forces.  Drone schools proving high-quality training at the right price will attract more students, so there’s a self-policing mechanism at work. However If there are complaints regarding excessive fee-charging, we may step in”.

Three out of the five drone operators that MediaNama spoke to, also suggested that it will be a good idea to have government-owned drone training schools where the cost of training is lower compared to private training schools. When we asked Dubey if there were any such schools in the pipeline, he informed us that, “IGRUA at Amethi (UP) is India’s largest flying school.  It is planning to venture into drone training. TSAA, owned by the Government of Telangana is also keen to do so.  Both are being encouraged by MoCA [Civil Aviation Ministry] to speed up their paperwork. Some more Government-owned flying schools may step in, once the demand picks up”.

Another suggestion that all five operators gave was to have a licensing regime similar to motor vehicle license norms where a person is given a license if they can successfully showcase that they can drive a motor vehicle. “In case of a car license, no one asks you whether you’ve learned driving from X school or Y school. All the government cares about is whether or not you can drive the car or not. Why can’t we have something similar for drone,” a pilot suggested.

When we asked Dubey about the feasibility of this solution, he directed us towards current drone regulations which mandate 35 hours of training over 5 days. He also suggested that with time, these training schools will be able to offer advanced courses in areas such as precision agriculture and spraying, aerial photography and video-editing, power-line inspections, railway track-testing etc.  “These will enhance the skills of pilots for more value-added drone use cases,” he said.

He also told us that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is working on norms for the drone pilot license, and “Indian licensing norms will be on similar lines, a la pilots of manned aircraft”.

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‘Cost of procuring compliant drone quite high right now’

“Our course costs Rs 86,000, and it’s a 2-3 week-long course, out of which five days we’ll teach theory, two to three days of simulator training, one lab day. Following that we’ll have practical flying lessons,” Yash Patel of Bombay Flying Club told MediaNama when we reached out to him to understand the course structure and fees. He also told us that candidates will be trained in a number of exercises, but when we asked him about the number of hours they would be allowed to fly, he declined to comment.

Patel also told us that the cost of procuring a drone which is compliant with the no permission, no takeoff protocol “is quite high right now”. He said that “if drone makers are able to make more cost effective drones, then that will naturally bring the course fee down”. BFC is set to use a training-specific drone developed by Mumbai-based RAYS Aviation Technologies LLP. Incidentally, Patel, during an interview with the industry body, Drone Federation of India, last month had said that BFC was trying to establish the drone training program for over a year, “and the major difficulty was in procuring the drone”.

He also said that there are “a lot of operating costs of running a drone training school, and we are giving candidates a number of facilities. There’s a lot that can go wrong during training, including a crash. There are also administrative costs that go into the process”.

When we asked him about the difference in payouts between certified pilots in the US and India, he said, “It’s not as if drone operators can only make money in the US. I know freelancers who are making pretty good money, and all that is required is for you to have the right skills and qualities”. Patel then went on to give us a breakdown of what he claimed a drone operator could make in India: “A newbie can earn Rs 3,000 per day, so that means Rs 90,000 if they can get their marketing right. If you are someone with more experience, you can easily make Rs 10,000 per day. There are a number of mapping projects that come up, which are more long term projects and can last for 1-2 months”.

Readers should note that for this story MediaNama called up all nine DGCA approved schools, but could only manage to speak to six of them, and repeated calls to the other three went unanswered. Of the six schools we spoke to, only BFC had a course fee ready, but was yet to start its course and it was still waiting for “one final document from the DGCA”. The remaining five schools were at least a month away from starting their courses and didn’t have a course or fee structure ready.

MediaNama has also prepared an exhaustive guide to the drone industry in India, encompassing regulations, use cases, concerns around privacy and surveillance, and the way forward for the industry. The guide is here

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