New aviation schools are opening across China to meet a growing demand for commercial pilots to fly small, remote-controlled aircraft, or drones.
It is estimated the country’s maintenance, mapping, filming and agricultural industries will need more than 10,000 drone pilots this year.
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There are currently less than 1,000 people licensed to fly drones and new schools, like that just opened in Beijing, are hoping to give students the skills they need to get work as professional remote-control pilots.
“I want to build my own company with drone services,” says student Xu Honggang, 24, who decided to enroll, attracted by the $780 a month salary pilots can earn.
“I like to work for myself, this is a new and popular line of work.”
The school, one of 42 in China, offers a two-week intensive course to students.
The $1,260 study programme includes learning about insurance, regulations and how drones are built and can be fixed.
Before flying real drones, students spend more than 20 hours on drone flight simulators.
“If we practice with the real drone, we will have a huge loss,” says drone flight teacher Zeng Jun.
“If we practice with the simulator, students can have a solid foundation and improve their confidence.”
In China, anyone flying an aircraft heavier than seven kilograms, or at a height of more than 120 metres, must be licensed.
“We need pilots with a license, because safety is the biggest concern in the operation of drones,” says Wu Haining, vice president of Shandong Qihang Surveying and Mapping Technology Company.
Wu’s company uses photographs taken by drones to provide government departments with demographic, housing, city planning and public services data.
“Although we have insurance, we still need strict regulations for studying and training to avoid any incident,” he said.
While piloting jobs are coming from the film, photography and logistics industries, an increasing amount of work is in agriculture.
With the cost of labour increasing, many farmers see drones as a way of reducing costs.
“China has a huge area of farmland, and there is a high demand for the drones in agricultural use such as plant protection and pesticide spraying,” says Yang Yi, from the Beijing TT Aviation Technology Company.
Chinese companies are the world’s leading makers and exporters of drones, with one company, DJI, selling 70 percent of commercial drones in 2014.
New models are increasingly fitted with GPS and tracking technology that is likely to further disrupt the way companies conduct their business.
However, for the moment at least, there is still the need for those with skills and the will to fly.