The Drone Operator
You know the data on your phone comes from cell towers. But do you know what happens when cell towers need work?
Usually, a tower climber slowly makes his or her way to the top… sometimes hundreds of feet off the ground… and fixes whatever needs to be fixed. But tower climbing can be a dangerous job, so telecommunications companies have recently begun using drones to do some of the work.
Drones won’t totally replace tower climbers — some tasks only a skilled human worker can do. But drones reduce risk and make the tower climber’s job safer and easier. Drones gather information on the tower, do inspections and audits, assess damaged equipment and take high-res images for later analysis.
That’s where the drone pilot comes in. The drone pilot, or UAV pilot (UAV stands for “unmanned aerial vehicle”) flies the drone and controls it from the ground.
Several major telecommunications companies are developing new drone programs for tower inspection and maintenance.
Here’s another cool thing about being a telecom drone operator: One of your tasks is to look out for endangered birds that might be nesting in the tower. Workers aren’t supposed to disrupt certain protected species of birds. So if you spot them nesting, you’ll help both the climbers and the birds.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A DRONE OPERATOR IN GEORGIA
There’s more to the job of a UAV pilot than just flying a drone. The telecom drone operator also does stuff like…
- Create flight plans that meet the mission’s needs, taking into account federal and local laws and regulations, current weather and other factors
- Assess any risks to the success or safety of the mission
- Troubleshoot technical problems or other obstacles
- Follow all safety procedures
- Communicate with coworkers to coordinate the mission
- Run through pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight checklists
- Maintain UAVs to make sure they’re operating in top condition
- Inventory any spare parts or components that might be needed for maintenance and repair
- Document findings and completed tasks and clearly communicate that info to the team
- Travel to different job sites
WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A DRONE PILOT
Here’s what high-flyers in the field say you’ll need to be:
- Alert. UAV pilots have to be very aware of their surroundings and monitor the mission with sharp eyes. Whether you’re scanning the horizon or monitoring the drone’s activities, you need to be sharp-eyed and clear-headed.
- Good communicator. In the telecom industry, drones provide valuable information. You will need to clearly communicate the result of these missions to your boss and coworkers. You have to document what you saw and what you did to provide clear, concise information that will help your colleagues down the line. Your work might even save a tower climber’s life.
- Aware. You’re defying gravity to fly a robot through the sky! Which means safety always comes first. Like any pilot, a UAV pilot has to be extremely cautious, careful and always follow safety procedures.
- Detail-oriented. You maintain complex machinery and go through hyper-detailed checklists on every flight. These are for safety as well as the success of the mission. The checklists help you stay organized and keep everyone safe — but you need to be responsible and consistent in following them!
IS THIS YOU?
Here are a few factors to consider as you decide whether becoming a drone pilot is right for you.
- High-tech tools. Not long ago, drones sounded like science fiction. As the field changes and develops, you’ll be using the very latest technology (and you get to play with some pretty cool toys!).
- Excellent job opportunities. Billions of dollars are being invested every year to build up this promising technology. As one of the field’s early experts, you’ll have incredibly valuable experience that will benefit you for a long time to come.
- You need to be a trailblazer. Because this is one of the newer types of jobs, information and resources can still be scarce. There isn’t yet a simple “A to Z” educational path. You will have to do extra searching for training programs and job opportunities. Be ready to do some legwork.
- The legal landscape around drone usage is changing quickly. Mostly, that’s good news for a UAV pilot, with the FAA and local governments establishing standard frameworks for safe and legal drone operation. But it also means you have to stay up-to-date with the latest rulings and regulations and be prepared to adapt to new rules.
A FEW DETAILS OF INTEREST
How much do drone operators make?
The BLS doesn’t yet have any salary statistics for drone pilots. But Monster.com says, “Drone pilot jobs have a wide salary range. Entry-level salaries in this field typically start around $30,000 per year, while salaries for experienced candidates can reach $150,000 or more.”
How do you become a drone operator?
To legally operate a drone, you need a drone pilot license called the FAA 107. The test is run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
You can get drone pilot training at private training centers throughout the country (see below for some Georgia locations). Tuition typically costs around $3,500. This training will help you learn everything you need to know to pass the FAA 107 test and get your drone license.
You don’t need a college degree or any specific college courses to take or pass the test. But an educational background in aviation can certainly help, and so will logged flight hours – even in a plane.
Some telecom jobs may require or prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree. You can make yourself a more competitive candidate with additional education. But the most important things for a drone pilot to have is proven experience, attention to detail and good judgment.
FIND DRONE PILOT TRAINING
HELP WITH THE FAA 107
APPLY FOR A SCHOLARSHIP
If you’re a high school senior and want to study aviation at one of Georgia’s technical colleges, why not apply for a Trade Five Scholarship? OK! Bring on the application >
OUTLOOK FOR DRONE PILOTS
Because this is such a new and fast-growing industry, there isn’t a lot of hard data on the outlook for drone operators. According to a 2016 study from the consulting firm PwC, the global market for drone business services is $127 billion, with $6.3 billion in telecom specifically. And since 2014, several major wireless telecom companies have run pilot programs using drones to do tower maintenance. More are announcing their plans to give drones a chance.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International released a 2013 report projecting 100,000+ new UAV jobs by 2025.
Monster.com says, “Throughout the 21st century, demand for drone pilot jobs has increased significantly, and it shows no signs of slowing down.”
THE VIEW FROM UP THERE…
Still wondering what it’s like up there in the clouds? Check out this awesome aerial footage from a drone inspecting a cell tower, and get a peek at what the telecom drone operator sees every day!
LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
Download this handy PDF for some facts on-the-go.