It’s hard work getting to be a professional drone pilot. But if you’ve recently passed your Part 107 test and are now a licensed drone pilot, the next step to getting up and running as a professional is to start selling your drone services. Before you can present your business to potential clients, you need to spend some time deciding how you will price and package your services. There are a ton of factors that go into your pricing structure, but it can be helpful to consider some averages to have a jumping-off point.
Commercial drone service providers can charge a rate of $100-$500 per hour, depending on the industry, with the most commonly used rate being about $150 per hour. Real estate photography services tend to be priced closer to $150 per hour, while oil & gas services are at the higher end of the range.
Average hourly rates by industry*
|Industry||Average Hourly Rate|
|Oil & Gas||$195|
*Based on survey results of an industry study conducted by Airstoc.
Quite a number of qualifying factors need to be added to this table of averages. One is that many drone service providers do not charge on an hourly rate, but rather on a per project or per day basis. Another is that an average rate is not proscriptive, but rather descriptive, and tends to iron out the unique circumstances that lend themselves to needing to charge higher or lower rates. Just because others are charging a certain rate, doesn’t mean that you can or should do the same thing.
Factors to consider when setting your rates for drone services
The rates that you can charge for your drone services are based on many factors including: your level of expertise and credentialing, the clients you are working for, the equipment you are using, the level of insurance that you carry, how far you need to travel, and the end product you can deliver.
Being a drone pilot is not a one size fits all type of occupation. You can start a drone business with a relatively low level of investment in terms of equipment and education, but then again, you can spend thousands of dollars on those things. The amount of investment you’ve put into what you can offer is a big part of what determines your value, and that determines what you can charge for your services. Let’s look at some of the variables that influence how much you can charge.
Training and Certifications
At the bare minimum, every professional drone pilot has spent $160 on passing their Aeronautical Knowledge Test, and most likely a training course ($150-$300) to help them pass the test. On top of that there are the hours of flight time mastering drone flight skills, and in many cases more training courses to help them specialize in a particular industry or application. These training courses can range in price from $300-$2,500, or even upwards, depending on the specific industry.
For example, you can take a real estate drone course to learn all about how to make a business shooting real estate photos with your drone for around $350. (See our recommended real estate course here). At the higher end, getting a certification in thermal imaging for applications such as emergency services or industrial inspections will run somewhere around $2,000.
If you’ve taken the time and spent the money to learn more advanced and technical skills and knowledge, you will be able to charge accordingly. By investing in your skills as an industrial inspector, you increase the value you bring to your clients, and they will be willing to pay a higher price.
While you could start a drone business with a $500 drone, you will be limited in terms of the quality of product you can achieve, and this will affect the price you can charge. That’s not to say that you couldn’t make a successful business with a $500 drone, because you absolutely could. But your hourly or package rate would likely need to be lower than local competitors who may be able to deliver higher resolution photos and videos. And lower prices mean that you need to work harder to earn the same amount. A $2,000 drone with a better camera would allow you to charge just a bit more for the same amount of work that you put into each photo shoot.
On the other hand, if you’ve invested in a $10,000 drone, you’re going to be able to achieve more professional results, and market yourself to higher paying clients. It’s important to weigh your goals realistically though. If you’re aiming to be a real estate aerial photographer, the amount you can expect clients to pay will probably not justify a $10,000 drone. That would be more warranted in industrial inspections, mining, etc., where clients expect to pay a premium, and where your training needs to match the quality of your equipment.
Clients and Industry
The clients that you are aiming your drone services for will have a huge impact on how much you are able to charge. Real estate agents or agencies would be willing to pay significantly less for drone services than the manager of a mining operation, or the head contractor of an $8 million construction project.
That’s partly because of the higher level of expertise required, and because of the more expensive equipment required to do the job. But it’s also because the final product that the client needs in hand is so much more technical and complicated. A real estate agent needs a beautiful and compelling stack of pictures or short video, which needs skill to create. But a mining operation needs measurements of stockpile volume, and road planning layouts, which is a much more costly, and also profit producing venture. They will pay a premium for a pilot with the skill to deliver that data.
As a drone pilot, you are selling your time as much as anything else, but you also have a product to deliver. The product you are delivering doesn’t cost you anything to produce in terms of raw materials. The cost is in time spent, equipment purchased, and expertise acquired. So the deliverable you are able to produce will be a direct result of those inputs, and that’s where the value is, determining how much you charge. This is a big part of why a lot of drone pilots prefer to charge per project rather than charging an hourly rate.
The product you ultimately deliver will depend on the industry. You might be delivering a photo and video package to a real estate agent, or a finished 3D orthomosaic to a construction firm, or a map to a logging firm, or a crop analysis to a farmer, or a safety report to a state department of transportation. What you are producing is a huge part of the basis of cost and pricing for your drone services.
Insurance coverage is a must for professional drone pilots. It’s not whether you have it, but what level of coverage you have that will play a role in setting your pricing rates. The average level of coverage for most drone pilots is a $1,000,000 policy. For applications that run higher levels of risk than your average drone photography, perhaps utility inspections for example, a higher level of insurance coverage may be advisable. In this case, you can expect to charge higher rates for the higher level of risk you are assuming, or put another way, for the higher insurance rates you will need to pay.
Travel and Location
How far you are willing to travel will influence what jobs you take on, and some professional drone pilots have a built in travel rate within a given radius, while others prefer to price travel costs as an add-on. Either way, getting to the location needs to be factored into your pricing structure in some form or another.
A similar consideration is how your location will impact how much you can charge for your services. If you live in a remote location with a small population base, it may be hard to demand a premium price, whereas if you live in a more densely populated area with much more demand for drone services, your prices can be higher, but you will also likely have more competition, so will need to weigh in what other competitors are charging.
When setting your rates, especially as you are getting started as a professional drone pilot, it may be helpful to think in terms of what it will take to offset your startup expenses. These expenses include the cost of your equipment, training courses, software subscriptions, and more. For a sample outline of what your startup expenses might be, see our article on how to become a professional drone pilot. A good goal would be to cover your startup expenses, and other related business expenses in your first year starting out, and you can set your rates accordingly.
When you’re determining how much to charge for your drone services, there’s a little bit more to the picture than just the equipment, training and time cost of performing the services. There are all the nuts and bolts of running a business. This includes insurance of course, and the cost of buying replacement parts for your equipment such as propellers or chargers, and software subscriptions such as mapping programs or photo editing software.
Going beyond that there’s the cost of forming a DBA or LLC, creating a website and web hosting fees, business cards and promotional materials, membership fees to industry specific associations or publications to keep you in the loop, billing and bookkeeping software subscriptions to simplify the administrative end of things, and more. Be sure to map out what all of your expenses will be on a monthly and/or yearly basis, and then set your rates at a level that will earn you enough to cover your expenses and still give you a comfortable profit margin.
Ways to structure your pricing options
There’s not one right way to set up your pricing model, but having a well thought through structure will not only make your life easier and your business more efficient, but it will also make it easier for potential clients to see what you offer and how much it costs – which goes a long way towards landing new projects.
There are a number of different ways you could go about structuring your pricing model. Let’s take basic drone photography as an example and look at a few options for how you could charge clients.
Pricing Structure Options:
|By the Hour||By the Half Day (4hrs)||By the Full Day (8hrs)||By Deliverable|
Your specific pricing model could include any number of variations in terms of how to combine different elements of hourly or per session charges with charges by deliverable. Most likely the deliverable charge would be a tiered pricing structure, with say 10 stills and 1 short video going for $600, or 20 stills and 1 video going for $850, and so on.
Here’s a low-end-of-the-spectrum mockup of a possible combination of the different pricing approaches, with an hourly rate combined with a per deliverable package:
|Base rate $50/hour on site|
|Basic photo package $180 for 5 edited photos (includes 1 hour on site)|
|Mid-level photo package $280 for 10 edited photos (includes 1 hour on site)|
|Basic video package $500 for 2 minute edited video (includes 1 hour on site)|
|Combination package $650 for 10 edited photos and a 1 minute video|
|Footage Editing $50/hour for photo or video editing|
When you’re getting started, you will need to play around with the pricing structure a little bit until you learn how long it takes you to get the shots you need, and to do the photo and video editing. Many drone photographers start out charging per hour, and then once they’ve established a good rhythm and understanding of the market, move to a per project type model. According to one survey, 65% of drone service providers charge on a per project basis rather than at an hourly rate.
Here are some other ways to think about how you charge for your drone services.
If you don’t want to be locked into a rigid pricing structure, you could go for a custom quote for each project and client. Some scenarios where this makes sense would include construction surveying projects where the number of variables for each project would be so different as to make it really necessary to weigh them in when figuring what to charge. Or for a drone pilot in the agriculture industry who might want to factor in the expected crop market value when quoting a price for a particular project.
If you’re going to give custom quotes for each project, you will still want to have a clear methodology for calculating your charges. This is an important aspect of being able to communicate your value to your potential clients, who will want to know exactly what they are paying for and what they will get in return.
Clients might be willing to pay a higher price to get their end product faster, so you could offer that as an option. It doesn’t cost you anything to get it to them in 2 days instead of a week, except for maybe a little less sleep. Jumping that project to the front of the line is a simple way to make more money for the same amount of work.
If you’re going to offer a shorter turnaround time for the more expensive packages, make sure to list a longer expected turnaround time for your basic package, if only to leave yourself room to get to the priority projects before the other ones.
Equipment Based Pricing
If you have more than one drone, you can offer different priced packages based on which equipment you will use. The more expensive drone will deliver a higher quality end product, and you can charge a higher price accordingly.
Should you undercut the competition?
It can be tempting to offer your services at a much lower rate than your competitors in hopes of landing more projects. While this may be a useful strategy in the short term and especially as you are starting out, it may have the long term effect of undervaluing the service in the long run. If you do start out by offering much lower prices to gain some experience and build your portfolio, it’s a good idea to set your prices near the same range as nearby competitors before long to keep the market strong. It makes sense for you too, to make more money for the same amount of effort.
With so many factors influencing the right price for your drone services, you ultimately will need to find your own way. Look at what others doing similar things are doing, and start there. As you go along, you will no doubt learn what works for you and what doesn’t, and make adjustments.