Chattin' Drones with Niels Voorn in The Netherlands
On my voyage to The Netherlands, I had the privilege to meet up with one of the country’s top drone operators: Niels Voorn of Dronevlieger.
Niels has been operating drones for nearly 10 years now, and has found much success given the strict regulations The Netherlands has. He’s had the opportunity to travel across the world, and fly for companies like Samsung, Discovery, ING, Sony, KLM and more.
We met at a Bocca Coffee Roasters in downtown Amsterdam and caught up. After a long chat about our other passion, Motorcycles, we got into talking drones.
So, how did you get involved with drones?
Eight years ago, I was still in school and there was nothing really about drones. In The Netherlands, you had small groups of people remotely building and flying their own remote controlled aircrafts. Drones were a ‘no-go’ word. I was very interested so I ended up building my own drone.
How did you start your company?
After I built my own drone, my neighbor had asked if I was taking pictures. I said no at first, but he asked me to take photos of his house and I thought this could be a business.
People associated things like war with drones at the time, so they called them quadcopters. I was quite stubborn and knew that no one would be looking up quadcopters when looking for aerial services, so I started Drone Vlieger, which translated means Drone Pilot.
Three days after I took photos of my neighbor’s house, I got a call from Discovery Channel asking if I was renting drones. I said “I can fly drones. Are you really Discovery Channel with a big Sony commercial?”
Sure enough, I went up north in Summer in The Netherlands. It was a big set, big cameras, hundreds of crew of people and I was there with my home-built drone with a camera on it - nothing to stabilize it. I said to myself: “Holy S***, what have I got myself into?” The shoot went surprisingly well and they loved it. A week later, I saw my footage on television.
Now I employ 4 freelancers and an admin.
What are the main regulations in the Netherlands?
They are very strict. The law just got introduced two years ago so it’s brand new. It’s basically saying you cannot fly anywhere, unless you have a permit. Two months ago, they updated a no-fly list and it essentially covers everything. Everything you see on the map, you’re not allowed to fly. You’re also not allowed to fly over the sea. Then there’s the costs:
ROC (full license or for flying drones that weigh more than 4 KGs)
- max 120 meter high
- max 500 meters away from the PIC (pilote in command)
ROC-Light (for drones under 4 KGs)
- Max 50 meter high
- Max 100 meters away from the PIC
10,000 euro to get certificate
Drone Licensed: 1,000 euro
3-day Exam with simulation (for ROC): 1,500 euro
Drone Check: take apart the drone, inspect, and give a license plate
Mandatory operations manual
Insurance is mandatory
Must cover hijacking
No contact with airport tower
How do these regulations impact your business?
I started very early so it’s helped. It was good until they started these new regulations. I’m not allowed to fly in Amsterdam. It stretches nearly 50 km from Amsterdam. The law is enforced and every policeman knows about it.
Let’s say I get 15 calls a day, I pretty much have to cancel 14. A week later, those requests will be on forums on the internet and unauthorized drone operators will take them. The chances of getting caught are really small, so for them there’s not much risk, but for me it’s not worth jeopardizing my company.
It must be difficult for you to watch unauthorized pilots go out and take these jobs.
It’s frustrating. It’s very frustrating.
You have a very large Facebook group in The Netherlands that many people post jobs to. I get tagged very often for jobs that I simply cannot take because it’s illegal. Then you get the people commenting on there: “You’re stupid, I’ll do it for 100 Euros.” It’s the biggest downside of having the drone company at this time. Especially because of all of the new laws that keep coming out.
On the other hand, it’s also a good thing that people are doing it illegally, because that’s a message to the government that what they have now is not working. As soon as there is no illegal activity, that means the government is doing something right. As long as they do it safely, hopefully it will inspire change.
So, where do you get your clients?
Now, most of my jobs are located outside the city or The Netherlands altogether. One of my biggest client is a Dutch Greenhouse company that has greenhouses all over The Netherlands, but also operate in many different countries. We have to fly to Italy, Kazakhstan, Australia to get footage because we basically cannot fly in The Netherlands.
What’s been your most memorable shoot?
I think Kazakhstan, and that was two months ago. I was invited by the Greenhouse company in The Netherlands. They asked: “We have a shoot, can your drone handle -30 degrees Celsius?” I looked it up and DJI said it works up until -5 degrees Celsius. So, I said let’s go and we’ll see what happens. The shoot was linked to a really, really big energy company that was providing energy to Russia.
So we were in Kazakhstan in Russian territory as guests of someone who was second or third richest guy from Kazakhstan. The factory looked not operable, but provided nearly 10% of Russia’s energy.
When I arrived, I went up the Greenhouse, where inside it was +26 degrees Celsius, then go outside to -30 degrees. I had my gloves with me, but there was no wind so I thought I’d be okay flying without them. As I was flying, the Inspire drone kept going right. I didn’t understand why, but the drone kept going right and right and thought to myself I have to do something. I looked down at my thumb on the controller and it was completely purple. My brain was trying to communicate with my thumb to move to the left, but it was frozen to the right. So I had to operate the entire drone with my other hand. I went to the guy and said: “My drone works, but my hand doesn’t.”
After the drone shoot, when I finally met the plant owner for interviews, I learned a very valuable lesson: when they offer you a shot of Russian Vodka, don’t accept it. If you take one shot, it gets refilled immediately!”
It was the most memorable thing that’s happened in my last eight years.
What was the ‘tipping point’ for your company?
Two years ago, I got a call from a Dutch television program. They had a drone item in their show and needed some advice from me to use in their program. I said yes, and that was it. I didn’t hear from them for two months.
Two months later, I got a call informing me they were starting filming for the show and they needed me to come in an chat about drones.
So I arrived, and what they didn’t tell me was the drone was the biggest item in their program and I had to present it for 25 minutes, on live Dutch television, prime-time on a Friday night. I presented the drone portion and answered questions from Facebook and Twitter. 1.5 million people saw the program.
I got a lot of calls after that.
Advice for new operators?
I do lectures in school for entrepreneurship every Monday. What I tell people there, answer all of your emails, all your phone calls. Sometimes those people can have the next client. You have no idea what’s around the next corner.
What does the future hold?
I’m now working with Law Enforcement as they’re getting into drones as well. Actually, I will probably stop with filming and join the law enforcement as head of drone operations in The Netherlands.
For more information about Niels and his company Dronevlieger, visit www.dronevlieger.nl and be sure to follow him on social media.