Former RAF pilot swaps flying jets for drone photo business

James preparing to launch another of his drones
James preparing to launch another of his drones
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A former RAF pilot is flying high with a new business venture borne out of his passion for aerial vehicles - combined with photography.

James Ixer had always wanted to fly for a living.

James in the cockpit during his role in the RAF

James in the cockpit during his role in the RAF

A Barnsley Air Cadet from 13, James learned to fly with the Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron while studying finance at Sheffield Hallam.

In 1997 he joined the RAF as a navigator and served for 17 years, mostly spent flying Puma helicopters into war zones, inserting and extracting troops under fire and moving medical supplies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

But eventual promotion to Wing Commander meant no more flying, so last August he quit Forces life to return to his family in Barnsley.

Now he flies by proxy, with a fleet of drones worth up to £20,000 each under his command from his position on the ground.

James Ixer in his former role in the RAF

James Ixer in his former role in the RAF

James, 42, is the boss of Helishots, a company utilising the latest in remotely piloted aircraft systems and specialist camera equipment to survey and capture high quality aerial imagery.

His is one of many drone-based start-ups, but few have Helishots’ USP - the training and expert knowledge James accrued during his RAF career.

“Helicopters come down to 50 feet, jets to 250 feet and these are also the zones that drones work in,” says James.

“It is so important to make a thorough analysis of the area you plan to operate in and work out who to warn. You also have to work with the challenges of wind and bad weather.

“It seemed like a natural progression which would utilise my skills and keep me connected with flying.”

Initially he had only contemplated using the technology to shoot unusual wedding videos, but a year on, Helishots has not worked for a single bride and groom.

Instead James has secured work across the UK on commissions as diverse as a pre-season video for Doncaster Knights Rugby FC, aerial shots of a potentially dangerous weir on the River Trent for the Canal and River Trust, and detailed shots of the roof on a 14-storey block of council flats.

Some of the UK’s largest building and roofing contractors are regular clients, as are building surveyors, solar companies, hotels, estate agents and architects.

Agronomists, the scientists who examine plant and crop health to help farmers maximise their yield, are also knocking on his Athersley office door.

“Agronomy is a huge growth area for me,” says James.

“All aspects of plant health can be monitored. Plant counting and flowering rates can be also determined and we can map for climate damage with a near-infra-red camera.

“It is capable of scanning 70 acres in 11 minutes and is so precise it can pinpoint a tiny but potentially devastating growth of black grass in the centre a field.

“The information it captures enables high-precision farming - a tractor can be programmed to spray only the affected area, saving money and time.”

Surveying is another growth area. A Helishots drone can capture precise topography for 2D and 3D modelling. Development sites of 12km sq can be covered in 40 minutes and a three-storey building can be scanned in eight minutes.

James also plans to launch a drone pilot academy this autumn.

He added: “Drones have had a bad press because some owners use them like toys without consideration for safety rules and regulations.

“I will be teaching hobbyists to keep out of trouble and ensure their drones stay in one piece, and
taking people wanting to become commercial 
operators through the mandatory Civil Aviation Authority course.”

He has taken on staff and credits growth to support from Barnsley Business and Innovation Centre’s 
Genesis Programme and the Wosskow Brown Foundation, a charity launched a year ago by the Barnsley and Sheffield law firm to aid start-ups and emerging entrepreneurs,.

The former pilot 
believes that as drones develop in complexity and scope, the sky is the limit for his business.