Drones are becoming more and more mainstream, as both hobbyists and professionals take to the skies in increasing numbers. If you’ve been bitten by the drone bug, it’s enticing to want to turn your hobby into a profession. So if that’s you, what’s the best path to take to get to the place where you can earn a full-time income by flying a drone?
Here are some simple steps that can get you on track to becoming a professional drone pilot:
- Buy a drone
- Practice drone flight skills
- Take a training course
- Get your commercial drone pilot’s license
- Get some (more) industry specific training
- Get drone insurance
- Start your business
- Grow your business
As business startup costs go, getting started as a professional drone pilot is fairly inexpensive, with the biggest costs going towards the purchase of a drone, obtaining a license, and investing in some training courses. But since it is such an accessible self-employment opportunity, there are lots of people getting into it, and as the market gets more saturated, the need to set yourself apart with your skill set and expertise means good training is the key to success.
Buy a Drone
In order to become a professional drone pilot, you need to learn to fly a drone. To learn how to fly a drone, you don’t necessarily need to have one, as you can get some good flight practice in with a flight simulator. And flight simulators are a good way to get started. But sooner or later you’re going to have to learn how to use the real thing, so get yourself a drone.
If you are set on becoming a professional drone pilot, it probably makes the most sense to get a drone that you can grow into, rather than spending money on a middle of the road model that you will have to upgrade. For example, if you are planning to go into mapping and surveying, don’t bother with getting a Mavic Air, which doesn’t have the kind of quality camera that will really get you what you need for mapping. Instead go straight for something like the Phantom 4 Pro, or even the Inspire 1. While it’s a little bit more of an upfront investment, you might as well start learning on the tools of the trade so that when you’re ready to start your business, you’re already an expert with your equipment.
Take the time to research which drone will be the best fit for the industry you’d like to get into. The right drone for a professional photographer is not going to be the best fit for someone wanting to do inspections. You can check out our buying guides for recommendations on the best drone for different applications.
Practice Your Drone Flight Skills
If you’ve never flown a drone before, or consider yourself a beginner (everyone has to start somewhere!), start with basic flight skills practice. If you’re really nervous about flying that expensive drone you just bought, you can start with a few simple drills. As you go, you’ll quickly gain confidence, and learn about your particular drone’s features. If you’ve gone with a relatively advanced drone, chances are it has a lot of features that will make it pretty easy to fly.
Once you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to start practicing more advanced flight skills. You need to learn all the ins and outs of handling your controller, how the flight features and settings of your drone work, how to get it to do exactly what you want. Practice this until it becomes second nature. If you’re like me, though eventually you might run out of ideas of how to advance your skills. This is where a training course comes in really handy.
Take a Training Course
There are many different avenues you could take when it comes to getting some training in drone skills. There are of course community college or even full time college programs offering training in drone piloting skills. This is certainly an option, but probably one of the most expensive and lengthy options to getting some training in flying a drone and learning associated skills. And while it is nice to be enrolled in an in-person, live course with other students to rub shoulders with and learn from, it is by no means the only or even the best way to learn drone skills.
There are tons of online training courses offered in drone flight training, from basic flight skills to specialized industry skills such as cinematography, mapping and surveying, and inspections. Not all online courses are created equal however. Some are very thorough, well-organized and offer practical skills development techniques, and others are more of a rambling “tutorial” and will do little to help you actually advance your skills. Check out our courses page for our vetted and highly recommended courses on a variety of skills areas. All of the courses we recommend are expertly crafted and will help you on your journey to becoming a professional drone pilot.
The purpose of a training course at this stage in the game is to help you master your basic (or perhaps more advanced) drone flight skills. You need to be an expert in controlling your drone, including all of its features and settings before you can start a business or look for a job. A training course at this stage can also help you narrow down your direction of interest as you develop. You can begin to learn whether you want to focus on photography, or maybe aim towards specifically real estate photography. Or you may discover by taking a course that you really want to head in the direction of doing industrial inspections. No matter which industry you want to focus on, or how skilled you feel you already are at handling your drone, there’s always something more to learn from experts in the field.
Get Your Commercial Drone Pilot’s License
In order to legally operate a drone for profit, you must get a drone pilot’s license from the FAA (in the United States – in other countries there are similar agencies that issue drone pilot licenses, though the process will differ depending on the agency and the country). While it’s not an impossibly difficult process, it consists of several steps, and includes passing an Aeronautical Knowledge Test, which for many is the most daunting part.
The knowledge test does require a bit of specific knowledge, and even if you’ve been flying a drone for awhile and are really good at flying, that doesn’t mean you’ll have all the knowledge needed to pass the test. While the FAA has free practice questions and materials to help you prepare for the Part 107 test, you may find it difficult to wade through the terminology. It will be well worth your while to take a training course to help you pass the Part 107 test. You can expect to spend 10-20 hours studying for the test.
Here are the steps involved in obtaining your Commercial Drone Pilot’s License:
- Pass your 16th birthday. Yes, you must be at least 16 to fly a drone commercially. Next stop, DMV.
- Take and pass the Aeronautical Knowledge Test, commonly referred to as the Part 107 test (or Unmanned Aircraft General or UAG). You must register to take the test at an FAA testing site and take the test in person. The test consists of 60 multiple choice questions.
- After passing the test, you can then apply for a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA online. You will get a temporary certificate within a week or two of applying, and your permanent one will arrive within 6-8 weeks.
There are a few more technical boxes to check off once you’ve completed your drone pilot licensing process. Like with most official certification processes, you need to keep renewing periodically.
Here’s what’s required of you as a commercial drone pilot:
- You need to register your drone or drones. If you already registered your drone under the recreational guidelines, you will need to re-register under the commercial guidelines. You need to keep your drone registration current, renewing every 36 months. Have the registration card with you every time you fly.
- Every 24 months you will need to renew your commercial drone pilot’s license by passing the recurrent Aeronautical Knowledge Test (Unmanned General – Recurrent). This is similar to the initial test, but 40 questions rather than 60, and with slightly different focus. It must also be taken at a physical testing location.
- You must present your aircraft and any associated documentation to the FAA upon request, for inspection or testing.
- You need to report any accidents within 10 days to the FAA if it results in injury or over $500 worth of property damage.
- Have and keep records of a preflight inspection protocol to ensure that your aircraft is safe for operation before each flight.
Get Some (More) Training – Be Industry Specific
Are you starting to see a theme here? As you’re starting out as a professional drone pilot, getting the right training is key to developing a successful career. That doesn’t mean that it needs to cost a ton, as there are plenty of high quality training options available at a relatively low cost. But it does mean that you need to avail yourself of them, and make the comparatively small investment of money (when you compare it to the cost of a 4 year degree), and the investment of time and effort to learn the skills.
With a professional drone pilot’s license in hand (or in pocket), you are ready to start earning money, but even if you have relatively decent drone flight skills, it’s going to be tough to earn enough as a drone pilot to make a living unless you specialize. It’s time to nail down the industry you would like to focus on, and get some specific training that will make you and your drone highly relevant. Let’s look at a few examples.
Drones are useful in mapping and surveying, and this use is especially relevant to construction, mining, surveying and other industries. In order to get started with flying a drone to create maps and surveys, your slightly better than basic flight skills will probably be adequate for the simple reason that most drones flown for mapping projects are given a pre-programed flight path or area, and will then automatically cover the terrain with minimal assistance from the pilot. The skills you will need to focus on are developing the end product. This means taking the images collected from a flight mission and using mapping software to create the maps or 3D models.
In order to have the skills and knowledge to use the mapping software well enough to deliver a high-quality product to your clients in construction and mining, you’re going to need training in all the ins and outs of whichever software program you plan to use. Mapping programs such as DroneDeploy, and SimActive offer many free tutorials and training courses. If you’re self-starting and disciplined, you can learn much of what you need by going through the tutorials. Or if you prefer a more guided approach, you can buy a course that will walk you through the process with a little more hand holding. Industry leader Pix4D offers training courses and even certification to validate your expertise, which can go a long way in helping you build your reputation as a skilled drone mapper.
Doing industrial inspections with a drone requires a high level of skilled flight control, as it will often require flying close to expensive and delicate assets such as wind turbines, power lines, bridge supports, and so on. In addition to mastering expert drone flight skills though, you will need to learn how to use thermal imaging cameras and how to read the output they provide. Thermal imaging cameras use heat emissivity to create an image, and this is particularly useful for inspections of industrial assets such as solar arrays, power lines, roofs, etc. to identify hotspots, water damage, and many more relevant issues.
To build your skills as a drone inspector, you need to get training and possibly some credentialing in thermography. Industry leaders in thermal imaging solutions FLIR offers certification courses to help you advance your career. It’s a little bit of outlay to begin with, but without it, you really won’t be able to sell your services as a professional aerial inspector. If you’re looking to make the big bucks in professional drone services, this is where it’s at, so it’s worth the investment to learn the skills.
The uses of drones in agriculture can overlap a bit with mapping and inspections as mentioned above. Training in mapping and training in thermal imaging will stand you in good stead if you wish to use your drone for agricultural applications. But where you really need to focus is on learning how to use NDVI imaging cameras and software. An NDVI camera is a multispectral imaging sensor. That means it will pick up light wavelengths outside of the visible spectrum. This is crucial to the use of drones for agriculture, as the infrared and other wavelengths captured by NDVI cameras can give essential information about crop health.
To make a career with your drone in the agriculture industry, you need to learn how to use and read the NDVI sensors, in addition to knowing how to use mapping software. A good place to start getting some training in this is with some of the industry leaders such as Senterra or MicaSense.
Get Drone Insurance
One very important step in getting started as a professional drone pilot is making sure you have proper and adequate insurance. Whether you’re a professional photographer, shooting weddings or real estate, or if you’re doing aerial inspections of bridges and commercial buildings, you need to have liability insurance specific to drone operations. Don’t assume that a regular business policy will cover you, as in most cases it probably won’t. If you’re just getting started you might look for a flexible drone insurance policy that will give you the option to purchase coverage for your actual drone flights (on-demand), such as DroneInsurance.com or SkyWatch.AI. As your business grows, you will probably want to/need to have a larger, more comprehensive policy to make sure you’re covered.
This is more than just common sense to make sure that you won’t be financially ruined in the case of an accident, paying out to cover damages. Many of your clients, especially when you are landing higher end type jobs, will ask for proof of insurance before hiring you.
Start Your Business
Starting a business of any kind can be hard. It’s especially hard at the beginning as you’re just trying to get the ball rolling, balancing the initial startup costs, trying to get customers, developing your product offering (or this case your skill set), trying to build your reputation. Add on to all this the paperwork and official end of being a self-employed freelancer or contractor. There’s a lot to manage. We’ve already talked about developing your skills, so let’s break the other things down a bit.
Like any good entrepreneur, you will want to know the costs of getting started. Your initial costs will depend quite a bit on what type of industry you are aiming for, as it will influence what drone you need to invest in, how much training you need, etc. Let’s look at one of the industry examples above to get an idea of what your startup costs might be.
This is what you can expect to lay out to get started as a professional drone pilot in the industrial inspection industry:
|DJI Inspire 2||$3,290|
|DJI XT2 Thermal Camera||$5,500|
|FAA Aeronautical Knowledge Testing Fee||$160|
|FAA Part 107 test prep course||$299|
|Mapping software subscription||$3,588/year|
|$1,000,000 Flight Liability Coverage||$599/year|
|Thermography training and certificate||$1,670|
|Administrative Expenses (website, standard office supplies, etc.)||$500/year|
|Total First Year Expenses||$15,606|
In addition to the initial investment, there will be ongoing costs like the Pilot’s license that needs to be renewed every two years, insurance costs, software subscriptions, and ongoing professional development courses. It’s just part of doing business.
Administrative Nuts and Bolts
How you manage your business on the official end will vary somewhat by state, and by country. You may want to keep it simple starting out by creating a DBA. This can be done by filling out the appropriate forms and paying the filing fee. Or you may possibly want to form an LLC or sole proprietorship. Then you’ll need to have a reliable bookkeeping method, and an invoicing program to send bills to clients. These are the little things that make up running a small business, and can seem annoying or insignificant, but be sure to give them a little bit of time and attention or you’ll run into problems with the IRS, and no one wants that.
Grow Your Business
Once you’ve got things underway, there’s no limit to your success other than your own ingenuity and hard work. Get your first project or client, and start building your reputation and gain expertise in your field.
Once you’ve got your drone, your skills, your training, and your license, you’re ready to start making money with your drone. You just need someone to start paying you. There are many ways to go about building your customer base, and it will depend in large part on your specific industry and skills, and also regional location. But here are some ideas of ways to get customers:
- Make a website. Market yourself and your skills.
- Make a DroneBase.com account to get projects.
- Put an ad in the paper or industry specific journals or publications.
- Cold calling to potential customers.
- Word of mouth. Ask your customers to share your information with others.
- Have a brochure and business card ready to give out.
- Attend conferences and events in your field to network and build your reputation.
Don’t rely on any one method of gaining customers. Do them all, and see what’s working the best. DroneBase.com is a good place to start getting some projects, but most pilots find that it is not where the majority of their work ends up coming from. It will also depend a lot on where you live and what the demand for drone pilots is like in your area. Be creative as you work to grow your customer base.
As your business grows, you will also begin to see ways that your technical expertise needs honing and development. This is a great opportunity to continue your formal or informal training as a drone pilot. Just like in any field, you will learn on the job, and you will also need to take more courses to advance. It’s an ongoing investment that will keep you from hitting a ceiling in your business growth.
How much you can expect to make as a professional drone pilot depends in large part on what type of industry you are working in. As many professional drone pilots are self-employed independent contractors or freelancers, your earnings will be somewhat variable depending on the season and how many projects you are able to land, with some times being busier than others.
If you’re flying full-time as a self-employed drone pilot, you can expect to earn in the range of $50,000-$75,000 per year, depending on your skill level and your business growth. Starting out, it will probably be less, and increase as your reputation and expertise grows. For certain industries such as commercial inspections, a drone pilot with the right training and certifications can expect to earn closer to the $200,000 per year mark.
If you’re considering getting started as a professional drone pilot, you probably want to know how long it will take you to actually start earning money, and ultimately to be able to make a full-time living at it.
Here’s a rough idea of what sort of timeline you can expect to get up and running:
|Day 1 – Buy a drone|
|Day 2-7 – Practice your flight skills|
|Day 8-21 – Take an FAA Part 107 training course|
|Day 21-24 – Take your Aeronautical Knowledge Test|
|Day 28 – Get your temporary pilot certificate|
|Day 30 – Buy drone insurance coverage|
|Day 31 – Start advertising your business and/or taking on projects|
|Day 31-60 – Take more training courses to specialize|
|Day 60 – Your Remote Pilot Certificate Card arrives|
You can see in this rough estimate, that you could potentially start earning some money as a professional pilot in as little as a month. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to quit your day job just yet though. It will probably take as long as a year or more to build up your business to the point of being able to make a full time income at it. But as startup businesses go, that’s a pretty short turn around time to start being profitable. So what are you waiting for?