Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
With skilled pilots needed in an increasing number of industries, students hope to enter a potentially lucrative occupation.
China has one of the fastest-growing drone markets in the world, with technology advancing quickly and prices falling just as rapidly. Worldwide, drones have become far more than a hobby. Enthusiasts have found professional use for them in a slew of industries—agricultural and environmental research, fine-art photography and film, and of course delivery services.
And as demand for drone pilots boom, drone-flying schools are becoming increasingly popular in China especially, reports China Daily. China’s Civil Aviation Administration estimates that by 2018, there will be a demand for more than 30,000 civilian drone pilots, according to Shanghaiist. So far, the country has 42 training centers and 700 licensed pilots—“a serious shortage.”
A license requirement for flying drones was rolled out last year, when the Chinese government began to fear that the plethora of amateur drone operators was compromising public safety. CCTV News reported, for example, that local authorities had to free a mini drone that got stuck in a high-voltage power line in Shanghai. Now, regulations require drone operators to have a license to fly anything weighing more than 7 kilograms (15 pounds) above 12 meters (40 feet) and for more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) out of the pilot’s sight.
Operating a drone isn’t like flying a remote-controlled plane. “I found many clients take the drones out to fly without reading the instructions or watching the instruction video, because they think it is very easy,” Leng Jun, a mini-drone seller in China, told a CCTV news reporter in July. He recalled a customer who lost his drone more than a half a mile away after pressing the wrong button on the remote control. “He didn’t find his drone until one in the morning.”
So what does it take to earn your license? At one drone-flying school in Shenzhen, Guangdong, the cheapest tuition is 130,000 yuan (over $20,000 U.S. dollars) for 120 hours of training. In the town of Changping, Beijing, a 10-day class will cost you 80,000 yuan, or over $12,500 U.S. dollars, reports China Daily. Students spend those days learning how to assemble a drone, how to fly one through game simulations—and to hit the books. To earn their license, students must pass not only a practical test but also a theory exam.
It’s a big investment—financially and time-wise—but as drones continue to soar in popularity, it’s well worth the price for some people. Ke Yubao, of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of China, told China Daily that professional pilots can earn more than 20,000 yuan, or over $3,000, per month. That’s a good reason to study up, considering that the monthly average salary in Shanghai is a little more than $1,100 U.S. dollars.