SCHOLAR INTERVIEW: Simon Garland-Lo, 2023 Drone Scholar


The Air League’s Drone Scholarships, supported by Eagle Eye Innovations, will this year provide 10 individuals with a one-day course which will see them gain an entry level drone qualification, the Class A2 CofC. Simon Garland-Lo, from the Wirral, was awarded a Drone Scholarship last year; and the subsequent ‘Drone Scholar of the Year Award’. We caught up with him recently to talk about all things drones!

Tell us about your background. What sparked your interest in drones?

I’m an Army Veteran who now works in the rail industry with inspiration to break into the drone security/surveillance market as my next career move. I’ve always enjoyed reading military history, this introduced me to drones as the concept dates back as far as the first world war. Whilst serving in Afghanistan I was exposed to and saw the military drones up close which really opened my eyes to the industry.

After leaving the Army, I was diagnosed with PTSD and underwent several years of therapy to begin my recovery. Part of this recovery process was discovering a passion for photography and being outside in nature. Before long I invested in a cheap domestic drone and was smitten with what I was able to capture. From this I invested in a DJI Mini 2 which I loved to use when I had the opportunity but never really trusted myself with the drone and my ability to fly it.

I’ve always had a hidden passion for flight and aviation, for me, the flight to go on holiday is almost as enjoyable as the vacation itself. Not being able to break into the airline pilot industry due to my health drones allowed me to experience the power of flight and of flying whilst keeping both feet firmly on the ground. Being a Veteran I’ve been privileged in getting to know the private security industry and some of the leaders within the industry. I’ve had some very informative and inspirational conversations around how drones are becoming a valuable tool in the private security, construction, and maintenance sectors. These conversations made me realise that there is the potential of so much more that can be done with a drone and how having the relevant qualifications can enable me to break into those sectors.

Simon Garland-Lo, 2023 Drone Scholar
Simon's first drone.

What made you apply for the Scholarship? 

I applied for the scholarship after seeing the applications online and having some friends also encourage me to apply. As with much of the aviation industry there is a lot of cost involved in breaking into it and that makes it quite restrictive for people. At the time I was not in work due to my mental health and was needing a challenge to focus on. The Air League was so welcoming, inclusive, and helpful. I initially made contact over the phone and had a wonderful conversation which really put me at ease with the process and clearly laid out what I needed to do. The sign-up process was incredibly straight forwards and really felt like I was having a virtual conversation rather than applying for something that had the potential to change my life.

I expected to have reams of paperwork and many different forms to complete, in the end it was really straight forwards. I remember it taking longer and needing more information about me to actually join the Air League itself. It really feels like the Air League has taken the time to think about how and what is needed from its members for them to apply for scholarships. Again, I was privileged to be able to apply for the Drone Scholarship via a Veterans scheme the Air League runs which was great and nice to know that organisations like the Air League give back to the community.

I remember thinking I knew about drones following my conversations with people in various other industries. I remember doing some more research before submitting my application to ensure that I was giving accurate information in my application. It was at this point I started to realise I didn’t know too much at all and was just breaking the surface of what’s out there. I think I knew more about the military applications of drone use at this point than the civilian sectors.

One memory that sticks with me was finding out that I had been successful with my application. It really came as a surprise for me and was a welcomed boost to me, I had a few months between being told I was successful and the actual course dates. I was all of a sudden like a child waiting for Christmas to arrive!

Cesse Valley, France: taken by Simon's drone.
Llandudno Pier, taken by Simon's drone.

What did you enjoy most on your Drone Scholarship? 

I still remember the pre-course work arriving in my email, it’s been a few good years since I was last in an educational environment. As I said earlier, I thought I knew how to fly a drone and simple things like weather, aerodynamics and the like. How I was proven wrong, I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong. The pre-course work was really engaging and made you want to learn more. I remember learning about space weather and how it affects how you fly your drone; it blew my mind that something that happens on the sun can affect how I fly my drone here on earth.

Arriving at the course I remember how welcoming Eagle Eye Innovation were and how they put me at ease right at the start. There was a great variety of experience in the room with the other candidates who’d never flown a drone before to others with many hours experience with domestic drones. I’d never realised that flight, regardless of if it’s a small drone, or an Airbus A380 giant of the skies the basic fundamental principles are the same. I was suddenly interested in learning about pressure, speed, lift, drag, angle of attack and so many other things I’d only ever thought a pilot of a jet fighter would need to know. I became aware that all these things affect how my drone works and will react in certain situations.

The practical part of the course and getting to fly drones that are used by the police to demonstrate what we had learnt in theory in the classroom was enjoyable. As I’ve said, I’ve flown drones for a couple of years before going on this course, but I gained so much more confidence and being able to put it into practice and demonstrate this was brilliant. Everyone on the course was given 1-2-1 time with an instructor for the flying and each flight built on knowledge from the previous flight until we were able to conduct multi-part flights.

People ask me what I learnt on the course, I can only reply with everything! I thought I knew how to fly a drone, but having undertaken the course I realised I knew maybe 10% of what is needed to be known to conduct a safe and effective flight within the regulations here in the UK.

What are you doing now? 

Since completing the course I’ve gained so much confidence with my drone that I found my trusty old DJI Mini 2 Drone couldn’t deliver what I was looking for and have invested in a DJI Mini 4 Pro Drone. This combined with my newfound confidence and ability is allowing me to do so much more with my drone and improve the content I’m able to capture. I’ve found that now I’m planning my flights more thoroughly before I even leave the house. This allows me to maximise my time on location and get the most out of the battery in the drone as I’m not making it up as I go along as I used to do in the past.

I’m also finding I’m able to concentrate more on the photography/videography side of the flight instead of the constant worry about flying the drone. Flying the drone feels more natural and reflexive instead of almost fighting the drone during the flight. That cliché of being one with the controls really is a thing!

The quality of the images I capture have also improved since completing the scholarship, I feel that this is in part due to the vast improvement in my knowledge of flying the drone and understanding the principles of flight, meteorology and other subjects covered in the course.

Hoylake, the Wirral: taken by Simon's drone.
Simon's new drone!

Do you see a future for yourself in the drone industry? 

Following the completion of my therapy for PTSD and now I’m in better health, I’m working within the rail industry and am currently saving to undertake the next part of the licensing process within the drone regulations laid out by the CAA. This will enable me to then move into the drone industry with a full-time job and do something which I’m passionate about as a career. I’ve discovered that drones are now used within the rail industry so with the next parts of the licensing obtained I may even be able to make a sideways step within my current sector.

I would like to think that I’ll have enough money saved in the next few years to undertake all the necessary steps and obtain all the licenses required to make this a sustainable career. I’m also looking to continue my membership of the Air League, both to support others wanting to get into the aviation industry through my membership and should any further opportunities arise within the Air League to do more. With the cost of living and everyday life saving for something like this is not a quick process.

Having decided after the scholarship that this is something I want to do I’ve already began to explore what the next steps are for me, and the types of courses and licenses required for me to be able to make a career of this. Thanks to the Air League I’ve the confidence to achieve this as well. It’s also great to know that the Air League and Eagle Eye Innovation are both able to offer direction and advice to enable me to do so.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about applying for this year’s Scholarship?

If you’re considering applying for a Drone Scholarship or any Air League Scholarship my honest advice would be to go for it! You’ve nothing to lose by doing so, it’s something that has the potential to really change your life for the better. Take your time with the application and think about what you want to say and need to include. Read through the application and plan what you want to say, but most importantly, be yourself! The Air League is wonderfully inclusive and believes in you. If you’ve the passion to become the better, you then you’ll smash the application as it will come through in what you write. The Air League don’t want robots or a stiff in a suit, they are looking for people who are passionate about their career and future and care about the future of aviation industry and your part in it.

Thinking specifically about the drone scholarship, experience is not important. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never flown a drone before, it doesn’t matter if you don’t own a drone or if you only have a small toy drone. We all must start somewhere, so why not let this be your starting point!

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