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Beyond the norm 3: drone membership

by Paul Clarke QinetiQ Deputy Director Aviation UAS

At BALPA, we are proud to be able to represent over 10,000 members. Our diverse membership ranges from commercial airline pilots to drone operators and everything in between. The spring edition of The Log, which landed with members last week, looks at the more specialist categories of BALPA membership as the lead article.

BALPA’s newest category – drone membership – is aligned with our ‘Associate membership’, which includes retired, trainee and overseas pilots. BALPA recognises that the number of pilots of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) is set to rise and it wants to embrace them. Membership is only open to professional drone operators.

Here, BALPA’s first drone member, Paul Clarke, explains what his job involves, as well as the biggest challenges he faces as a professional drone operator.

“I started as an RAF pilot before going to the United States to fly Reapers, and then into my current position as Deputy Director Aviation (Unmanned Air Systems – UAS), overseeing all UAS activity at QinetiQ. My job involves oversight and assurance of all RPAS activity, from the large to the small.

“While most of those involved at the larger end of the scale have come from traditional aviation backgrounds, many who enter this industry in an ‘innovative’ way have not, so my job often involves giving help and advice on good practice. I am also involved in the development of European-level technical standards for civil RPAS operations, as a member of EUROCAE Working Group 105.

“I enjoy finding ways to facilitate new kinds of operations while maintaining the standards expected of professional aviators. This nascent industry is growing and learning, and becoming better at what it does week on week. We are awash with dynamic, intelligent and determined people who are nonetheless operating in an environment that can be, initially, very unfamiliar to them. The key to success lies in providing appropriate guidance and advice – and knowing that I have, in some small way, contributed to that is immensely rewarding.

“The biggest challenge of my job is keeping track of all the small RPAS activity that has mushroomed in the past two years or so. Often, this involves innovations in design or operational capability, so finding a proportional, risk-based approach to facilitating these kinds of operations – while genuinely meeting the intent of aviation safety regulations – can be problematic.

“My BALPA membership came about because I was invited to give a presentation to BALPA pilot representatives. At the end, I was asked if I would be interested in joining as an RPAS member, and it went from there. Organisations such as BALPA can cross the divide between manned and unmanned aircraft pilots and operators.

“Professional commercial drone users are generally well regulated and well trained. Often they have an aviation background and, so, an ‘aviation mentality’. They understand the laws of the skies and want to work with manned aircraft pilots to ensure safety.”

BALPA drone membership is open to any licensed, professional drone operator. Benefits of membership include industrial support, employment issues advice, free initial personal legal advice, access to BALPA Financial Solutions, and access to the BALPA website, forums, and app.

The other blog posts in our ‘Beyond the norm’ series featured helicopter winchman Euan Gibson, and cargo pilot Matt Smith