It’s long since been your dream to become a commercial drone pilot. There are many exciting industries you can work in, and the list grows longer all the time. You have moderate amounts of drone flight experience, so now you’re ready to pursue a professional career. How do you do it?
Here’s how to become a commercial drone pilot:
- Pass the FAA knowledge exam to earn your license
- Buy a high-quality drone
- Build a website with a varied portfolio
- Ask your social circle for job leads
- Network often
- Join job boards and apply for jobs
In this ultimate guide to becoming a commercial drone pilot, we’ll expand further on the steps above so you’ll have all the info you need to find your first gig. We’ll also examine the market outlook for drone pilots, including a discussion of what your income might look like.
How to become a professional drone pilot
First, per the steps into the intro, let’s delve into the steps necessary to become a commercial drone pilot.
1. Get your drone license
In the United States, the organization that mandates drone rules is the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA. This organization will also issue your drone license.
First-time pilots who want a commercial drone license must meet certain criteria. You must be older than 16. Mentally and physically, you must be deemed in good condition to operate a drone. You must also understand the English language, including being able to write, speak, and read it.
Then you can enroll with the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application or IACRA, creating a profile there to get your FAA Tracking Number or FTN.
Now it’s time to schedule your test via this site. You can use the site to find an FAA Airman Knowledge Testing Center near you.
Then you’ll take the Unmanned Aircraft General or UAG exam, which will quiz you on everything aeronautics. The link in the prior sentence takes you to a PDF courtesy of the FAA with sample questions to give you an idea of what’s on the test. These exact questions will likely not be asked of you during your UAG exam though.
What questions will you see? The FAA recommends brushing up on these areas:
- Flying a drone at night
- Preflight inspection
- Drone maintenance
- Airport operations
- Aeronautical judgment and decision-making
- The effects of alcohol and drugs on judgment and flight abilities
- Small unmanned aircraft performance
- Radio communication protocols
- Crew resource management
- Emergency procedures
- Loading small unmanned aircraft
- How weather impacts small unmanned aircraft
- Classifying airspaces
- Flight restrictions
You can study on your own using the free resources provided by the FAA, or to improve your chances of passing on the first try, you can take an online course to help you get prepared for the FAA knowledge test, also commonly referred to as the Part 107 test. Here are some courses we recommend.
You can also check out our resource on commonly asked questions about the Part 107 exam and process to find out more about this test and what’s involved.
On testing day, you must have a government-approved photo ID to take the UAG exam. After the test wraps up, you’ll either have passed or failed. If you pass, then you need to sign in to your IACRA profile to fill out FAA Form 8710-13, which is for your remote pilot certification or license.
To do this, log into the IACRA website, go to Start New Application, and fill out all the information, including your Knowledge Test Exam ID, which is 17 digits long. After your electric signature is processed, you’ll have to pass a background check by the TSA.
If you do that and everything is processed, you’ll receive your remote pilot certificate.
A Part 107 remote pilot license is good for two years. Then you have to follow all the steps to this point again to keep your license current.
2. Buy a high-quality drone
To celebrate passing the UAG exam, why not treat yourself to a new drone? In some instances, a commercial drone might be provided to you courtesy of your employer, but if you’re going the self-employed route, you might need to upgrade your equipment to get the kind of work you need to succeed.
After all, how are you supposed to get better at flying a drone without a UAV of your own? Plus, you’ll need a drone to create your portfolio, which we’ll talk more about shortly.
Your drone must have a camera for photography and videography. You should expect to pay anywhere from $800 to $1,500 for a drone of this caliber. In this guide, we offer plenty of pointers for what to look for when buying your first drone with a camera.
In addition, your drone should have intelligent flight features such as route mapping and follow-me mode. These features allow for a hands-off flight so you can focus more on taking photos and videos, and really take your work to the professional level.
A gimbal will provide camera stability, a must if you want crisp shots. A one-inch camera sensor will reduce digital noise while increasing light sensitivity, so that’s recommended as well.
You also need a good photo and video resolution. Your camera doesn’t have to be the highest-quality device ever, but it shouldn’t be so cheap that your photos are always grainy.
3. Build a website and post your portfolio
As a commercial drone pilot, chances are good that you’ll do at least some work on a freelance basis. Your clients will want to learn more about you before deciding to hire you, so having a website of your own is essential.
Today, making your own website is about as easy as it gets. You can use free website builders like Weebly or Wix or beginner-friendly services such as GoDaddy. Many website builders have drag-and-drop features so you can configure the layout of your website just the way you like it.
If you’re drawing creative blanks on how to design your website, you can always use pre-built templates.
Ideally, once you start earning money through your commercial drone work, you’ll want to invest in a better website that doesn’t use templates. Your site will be more professional and could attract even more traffic.
For now, what matters most is the presence of your portfolio. On your website, showcase your best drone photos and/or videos. Your drone photography or videography should be centered on the niche or industry you want to break into.
For example, if you want to become a real estate drone pilot, then perhaps your portfolio focuses on buildings, homes, and landscapes.
Keep your portfolio varied though, even if it is centralized around one topic. If you edit your photos, you can post some raw photos (that you really like) versus those that you edit to show the breadth of the work you do. You can also showcase photos that are in color versus black and white as another example.
If your role in drone piloting is less about taking photos and videos and more about operating or repairing drones, then make sure there’s a section on your website where you list your experience.
4. Ask your social circle for job leads
You’ve got your drone license, your website, and your portfolio. If you haven’t already, it’s time to update your resume, because you’re going job hunting.
We recommend starting with people you already know whether through your current job or your past job. Your friends and family are viable people to ask as well. Connect with them and query them on whether they know anyone who might know someone who can help you get your foot in the door as a commercial drone pilot.
Maybe someone can help you out or perhaps not, but it never hurts to try. If your social circle can’t point you in the direction of any good leads or if you have some leads but they dry up, don’t worry. You have plenty more options for finding work as a drone pilot.
5. Network often
Whenever you find some spare time, you should network. That can entail going to in-person networking events, but don’t underestimate online networking. Social media platforms can be a great way to meet new people, for instance.
Everyone always assumes LinkedIn is the only social platform you can use to find a job, but that’s not true. You can upload clips of you flying a drone on YouTube and include your email address in your contact information. Someone who sees your awesome drone abilities might contact you.
You can also join Facebook groups related to commercial drones. Your next job lead could arrive through a group like this.
6. Join job boards and apply for jobs
Your third avenue for finding work as a commercial drone pilot is to look at job boards. You can start with the generalized boards and websites such as Indeed, Monster, and ZipRecruiter, as these sites will have drone jobs as they’re posted.
We recommend looking for job boards centered on drones and applying for openings here as well. Tailor your resume and cover letter for each application, showing the breadth of your experience.
With time, you’ll be invited in for interviews. The interview might not be exactly like the sit-down conversations you have when applying for every other job. You’ll likely have to bring your drone with you to show off your skills, if not during the first interview, then during the second or third.
7. Take freelance jobs as they come
As the beginning stages of your career, you should take any freelance drone piloting gig that comes your way to gain experience and help you build your portfolio. One good way to begin is with a DroneBase account, although this method of finding jobs will not be profitable over the long game.
Still, getting a little bit of payout, and a lot of experience will help you build your career, and boost your confidence, so don’t be overly picky as to what jobs you take as you’re starting out. You never know what they might lead to!
Are drone jobs in demand? (Market Outlook)
Before you pursue a job as a commercial drone pilot, you have to know: is your career one that’s going to be around in the next three to five years? What about the next seven to ten years?
To answer that, we’ll review the industry’s market outlook. A book called Drone Service Market to 2027 – Global Analysis and Forecasts by Type, Services, Industries, and Law Enforcement (source) predicts that from 2020 to 2028, the drone service market around the world is expected to grow by more than 50 percent.
More and more industries are realizing what drones can do. Instead of disturbing sensitive ecosystems like we people do when surveying, a drone can leave everything intact. Rather than put your own life in danger trying to get an awesome aerial shot or entering a mine for surveying, a drone can do it.
Although it’s always hard to say where any industry will go in these ever-changing times, the projected eight-year growth period for drones is astronomical! Keep in mind that the estimated 51.1% growth is for worldwide drone piloting, not just in the United States. Even still, the prognosis is very good for those looking to get into a career as a drone pilot.
How much money do professional drone pilots make?
Another question that’s assuredly on your mind is how much money you can make as a commercial drone pilot.
That’s a lot harder to answer. As we talked about earlier, your work as a drone pilot might be on a freelance basis. In that case, then your earnings are capped by how many clients you have, how much they’re willing to pay you, and how many hours you can put into each workweek.
For those commercial drone pilots that are part of a company, you might have a fixed salary.
Then you have to take into account that where you live plays a role in how much money you can earn as a commercial drone pilot. As you can see then, there are many factors that can lead to income fluctuations.
That’s why you hear of drone pilots who make a killing by flying drones or taking photos or videos. There are just as many commercial drone pilots out there who might struggle to make ends meet and can’t quit their day job yet.
To accommodate for the range of the abovementioned factors, we’ll defer to Indeed’s income estimate for commercial drone pilots. According to Indeed, a drone pilot in the US might earn $42,800 a year. Could your own income be higher than that? Absolutely. It could also be lower.
Industries professional drone pilots work in
Ideally, before you apply for your first job as a commercial drone pilot, you must choose the niche or industry you want to work in. This is something we touched on earlier in the guide, so let’s talk about it in more detail now.
When news happens around you, having a commercial drone to capture it will put you head and shoulders above the competition. Working in the news industry on a freelance basis can be a tough role to occupy though. You have to constantly find newsworthy occurrences and get to them before anyone else.
Then you have to hope that a news company is willing to pay you a high price for your videos or photos.
Have you ever watched a film or TV show and wondered how the director got some of their shots? It’s not all CGI today. Instead, directors frequently rely on drone pilots to fly a drone and bring a scene to life.
Sporting events are another huge area of entertainment in which drones are becoming commonplace. It’s a lot safer and less obtrusive for a drone to be on a sports field than it is for a person. The quality of footage you can get from that unique vantage point dazzles audiences.
Before unearthing an unexplored area, archaeologists rely on drones to help determine whether anything might be below ground level. They’ll also use a drone to scope out the safety of the site. This is very fulfilling work you could be doing, especially if your drone surveying helps others find a new dinosaur species!
When someone files an insurance claim, the insurer usually visits the site to check out the damage. In the event of a fire, a flash flood, or a tornado, physically going to the site can be impossible and very unsafe.
A drone can get through and assess the site in a way that people cannot. Drones are also useful in insurance for property risk assessments and fraud claims inspections.
We talked about this earlier, but real estate is another industry in which you see drones more and more. After all, have you ever stopped to think about where those overhead shots of homes for sale come from?
It’s not a person taking those photos or videos anymore, thankfully. It’s a drone doing it. Your work could inspire someone to make an offer on a new house, which is exciting stuff!
Mining is another industry we touched on in this guide. Rather than putting human lives at risk to inspect a potentially dangerous mine, a drone can go in and assess whether the area is safe. Drones can also reach narrower passageways than people can.
Drone images can also be used to measure stockpile volumes and plan new mine roads in ways that are impossible from the ground.
Before construction work begins on a new building, drones will usually survey the area to gather data on what’s both aboveground and underground. The construction team can use this data to make educated decisions on whether the land they’re building on is safe.
Your work could prevent catastrophic disasters, which is a big deal.
Site mapping and surveying is yet another job you could do as a commercial UAV pilot. Your drone can cross large expanses of land in a short time, saving dozens to hundreds of manhours. Plus, as we’ve said throughout this guide, a drone can survey land safely and without disrupting a sensitive ecosystem.
Finding work as a commercial drone pilot starts with obtaining your FAA license, which you must renew every two years by passing the FAA knowledge test. Then you need a portfolio, a website, and a job lead.
The world of drone piloting, surveying, photography, and videography is a lucrative one with staying power. You can work in an assortment of industries on a freelance or hired basis, making a difference every single day!