“It’s an achievement to be labelled the first, however, I think it’s more important to ensure that I am not the last.”
That is the inspirational message from PC Victoria Atherton after qualifying as Derbyshire Constabulary’s first female drone pilot.
The dedicated police officer recently became a fully-fledged member of the Force’s UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) division after passing her flight assessment during a specialist ES-DOT (Emergency Services Drone Operators Training) course run by drone expert Heliguy.
It was the culmination of determination and a drive for doing the right thing which led to PC Atherton applying for the police drone unit.
In her own words, her relationship with aviation has been ‘turbulent’ and led to her successfully fighting a gender discrimination case against a fixed-wing flying school along the way.
Thanks to her qualification, she will now be able to play a key part in Derbyshire Constabulary’s growing drone division, with the fleet of unmanned vehicles proving valuable in a range of public-safety missions, from finding missing people to providing a useful tactical overview of a situation.
Over the last few days, she has already put her new skills to the test in the most dramatic of fashions, being deployed to Whaley Bridge dam, which suffered severe damage last week and has led to around 1,500 residents being evacuated.
PC Atherton and her drone team colleagues have used a range of DJI aircraft - supplied by Heliguy - to provide close-up images of the dam and to patrol the exclusion zone to monitor people’s homes, amid reports of burglars in the area.
And when she isn’t flying the drone to fight crime and keep communities safe, PC Atherton is determined to be a role model to other would-be female drone pilots, encouraging more women to take to the skies.
'Becoming A Drone Pilot Is Achievable For Anyone'
Make no mistake, PC Atherton is in the minority; part of a small number of females who are plying their trade with drones.
A survey published towards the end of last year revealed that just 5% of UAV pilots are women. It’s a common trend, with the numbers across the aerospace industry generally low.
It’s not all bad news, because the number of female drone pilots is rising, but it is a slow burner.
A case-in point was the devastating Notre Dame fire in April. In some circles, one of the most publicised images wasn’t of the blaze itself; rather a female drone pilot who helped fight it.
At the time, DJI’s Director of Public Safety Integration, Romeo Durscher, took to social media to say he felt proud to see a female operator at the forefront of the rescue mission.
This story was also picked up by a number of online channels banging the drum for female drone operators and giving them a platform to promote their talents.
This level of exposure demonstrated the fact that women and drones are still very much a rarity, but the opportunities are there to succeed in this extremely male-dominated arena.
PC Atherton is now part of this small band of female operators. But she is not content with being a statistic. Instead, she is determined to be a key influencer, encouraging other women to follow her lead and to promote the female drone pilot community.
Indeed, her message to wannabe women UAV pilots is clear. ‘Get involved’.
“Personally, I think the best way to encourage women to get involved is to support each other,” she said.
PC Atherton added: “The future of aviation appears to be heading in the direction of unmanned aircraft and it’s important that men and women are equally represented in this field.
“As flying drones is in its infancy, it’s important that women take advantage of the opportunities available in order to avoid a gender gap in the future.
“For me, it certainly feels like an achievement to be labelled as the first female drone pilot in the Derbyshire Constabulary, however, I think it’s more important to ensure that I am not the last.
“The police is full of strong women who would make excellent drone pilots.”
Having suffered at the hands of sexual discrimination en route to achieving her aviation dream, PC Atherton is proof that any hurdle can be overcome if you want it badly enough.
She hopes that her story will inspire others and give women the confidence to join the exciting and rapidly-evolving drone scene - whether that’s in the police or elsewhere.
She said: “I have been involved in aviation throughout my career, from being a member of the University Air Squadron with the RAFVR (Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve) to working at a small flying school. I think there are stereotypes in the aviation industry, however, the police do not entertain such stereotypes. If you want to become a drone pilot in the police, it’s completely achievable for anyone.
“I live my life with the philosophy that I do not let my fears dictate my actions. I think it’s important to learn and adapt whenever the opportunity arises.
“My relationship with aviation has been a turbulent one. I initially paid to complete my PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence) with a fixed-wing flying school, however the school did not honour the package I paid for and I completely lost the opportunity to fly. I won in court and in turn won a gender discrimination case.
"Despite winning, I could not recover my financial loss. Although I look back at this with regret because it stopped me flying, the injustice of it led to me wanting to become a police officer.
“I understand why some women would be reluctant to spend money on anything aviation -related due to examples like mine, but I don’t think flying drones attracts the same level of financial risk or even the same stereotypes.”
With the flight assessment under her belt, PC Atherton believes that becoming a drone pilot is an extremely rewarding career path across a range of industries.
She said: “Flying the drone is a fantastic opportunity and provides training which in turn, as a police officer, allows you to contribute to incidents in an extremely dynamic way.
"I love policing and being able to provide air support to my colleagues is a really exciting and rewarding prospect. I imagine that this notion is transferable to other industries such as engineering and the film industry; it’s important to evolve as technology develops to ensure your skills are current and useful.
“I would encourage anyone who is apprehensive about training to try flying a drone. We are fortunate in Derbyshire Police to have an extremely approachable drone unit - if you want to try flying a drone, the unit will facilitate this. Additionally, I will gladly make time to demonstrate flying the drone amongst any of my colleagues or anyone aspiring to pursue a career in the industry.
“Having knowledge of aviation/flight is not required, so people should not be put off by a lack of experience. I only started flying the police drone in April and now I am a qualified drone pilot!”
How Did You Find The Heliguy Training?
PC Atherton honed her drone skills and passed the all-important flight assessment during a recent Heliguy ES-DOT course.
She described it as challenging but rewarding and praised the Heliguy team for its knowledge and affable approach.
She said: “There was a lot of information to take on board, but the trainers were approachable and willing to adapt their teaching style to ensure they gave everyone the best opportunity of passing.
“Personally, I was worried about the training environment, I was concerned that it would be competitive and emulous. I had no reason to be concerned, everyone on the course had a genuine interest in aviation and were willing to share information and experiences to ensure that we all passed as a collective. I think the selection process captured the right people and I was impressed with the breadth of experience within the police.
“Some of the guys on the course had drones and I was slightly put off by the expense of purchasing my own, however, owning a drone is not prerequisite to passing the course. I enjoyed the course so much I’m currently researching drones to buy myself so I can keep my hours up.”
Heliguy is a renowned trainer and has led courses for major names such as Balfour Beatty, BBC Natural History Unit, Sellafield Sites and Manchester City FC.
We do not just run ES-DOT courses, either. As a CAA-approved NQE, we deliver PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operations) training at venues around the UK – offering a dynamic classroom environment, demonstration equipment and networking opportunities. This course is currently on offer at a reduced cost, available for a limited time only for £999 - down from £1,439. Book your place now.
Heliguy also runs Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses for the emergency services, to enhance pilot expertise and covering advanced flight training, exemptions and legislation updates.
Derbyshire Police Benefiting From Drones
Drones have quickly become a key tool for the police, and not just within Derbyshire Constabulary.
As a DJI Gold Partner, Heliguy has a large number of UK police forces on its books, as well as other major emergency services, including London Fire Brigade – one of the largest firefighting and rescue organisations in the world.
Explaining how Derbyshire is utilising this technology - supplied by Heliguy - PC Atherton said: “The use of drones has given us the capability to be dynamic at any incident and has negated the need to outsource and use NPAS (National Police Air Service) as much.
“The drones are versatile and therefore can be used in a variety of different policing situations. I think it’s anticipated that we use the drone in certain scenarios, however, in Derbyshire we have also deployed the drone for planning purposes in order to provide a tactical overview of policing operations.
“Derbyshire Police has deployed the drone in conjunction with mountain rescue and also with Derbyshire Fire and Rescue at several scenes. The drone has even been used for conducting structural assessments of roofs.
“The capability of the drone unit is endless and it has changed the way officers and police staff now utilise the service for their benefit.”
Now that PC Atherton is a qualified member of Derbyshire Constabulary’s drone division, she will be deployed for a range of different operations.
She said: “I will mainly respond to spontaneous incidents as opposed to pre-planned events.
"The best examples include providing air support for missing people, gathering evidence from scenes and locating offenders for live incidents.”
Her deployment to the Whaley Bridge incident at Toddbrook Reservoir is the perfect example of how she will operate within the drone unit.
PC Atherton, who has been on drone duty at the dam, said: "The drones have been fantastic and have been great for working in partnership with the engineers, RAF and fire crews and we've been able to supply them with close up images of the dam when needed. The drones have also helped to position the aggregate and to monitor the situation.
"We've also been able to patrol the exclusion zone with the drone to monitor people's homes as there have been reports of burglars in the area. We have been using the Mavic Pro, Matrice 200 Series and the thermal capabilities of the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual."
The incident proves how effective drones can be, especially when paired with a powerful payload.
For instance, check out the zoom capabilities of the DJI Zenmuse Z30 camera while it is integrated with a DJI M200 Series drone. The first image shows an aerial shot of the dam from afar, with the bags of aggregate which have been used to fill in the damage on the right of the structure, while the second image shows the bags of aggregate as captured by the zoom. It provides a unique view of the situation while keeping officers away from danger.
For PC Atherton, combining flying with policing is the perfect match.
She said: “I have always been interested in aviation. When I was younger I was torn between becoming a pilot or a police officer, therefore flying drones for the police appears to give me the best of both worlds.
“Ultimately, the police are measured by the service they provide to the public, and being able to provide drone supports gives me another facet of skills which I can utilise to give our service users the best possible outcome.”
To discuss any of the equipment or training courses mentioned in this article, or to find out more about how Heliguy can support, scale or kick start your commercial drone programme, contact us by email or phone.