If you’ve recently gotten into recreational drones, perhaps you’re starting to think about how this could help to pay the bills. Who wouldn’t want to turn their favorite hobby into a full-time career, or at the very least figure out how to make it into a lucrative side-gig? Is making money flying a drone reserved for those pilots with years of experience, or is there money to be made even for those relatively new to the game? How exactly can you make money with a drone?
There are many avenues for turning your drone hobby into a profitable drone business. In order to make money with a drone, you will need to invest in the right equipment for the job, and get the training and experience required for the work you are planning to do. You will also need to get licensed with the FAA (Part 107) for commercial drone piloting.
I’ll share nine ways to make money with a drone that I have found, but really you only need to be limited by your own creativity. Keep in mind with most of these ways of making money with your drone that there will be a learning curve and hard work involved (not instant success), and with some you will need to invest a good bit of time, money, or both in order to make a business succeed. But for the determined and enthusiastic, running your own drone business is attainable, with the potential to be quite profitable.
Sell Your Drone Photography & Videography
By putting photography and videography in its own category, I really mean what you might think of as your classic photographer – the artist who is just out finding, creating, capturing beautiful photos and videos for the sheer love of it, with a vague hope that someone will want to buy the pieces they are creating. A photographer with a drone is just continuing their love of creative expression with a camera, just a bit higher up.
There are a few ways to go to make money with drone photography. The first is selling your work, your creative expression to interested parties by marketing yourself and your work. Another way to go with this is to market your services as a photographer to be commissioned for specific projects. These often also go hand in hand, but I’ll get to several commissioned photographer options in a bit.
If you’re hoping to sell your creative works as stand-alone pieces, the place to start is by building your portfolio and your reputation as a drone photographer. If you’re already a photographer who has just gotten into drones, the marketing part will probably not be too demanding, just adding on to what you already have. Put your best aerial shots or videos up for prospective buyers to see, and get them into your store, whether it’s a brick and mortar, or online establishment.
Equipment needed: A drone with a 12MP camera. See my recommended drone for professional photography.
Sell Your Drone Imagery as Stock Photo & Video
If you’re working as an aerial photographer, whether you’re selling prints or taking contracts for projects or events, another way to boost your income is by signing up for a stock photography account or two. Most sites will review your work before offering you an account, but once you have an account with photos available for download, you will be paid a royalty for each download. Not all stock photo or video sites are created equal, so look for a few that have high quality images and offer a good royalty arrangement such as Shutterstock, iStock/Getty, Alamy, or Adobe Stock.
In order to get an account with stock photo sites that prioritize quality over quantity, you are going to have to submit some really good quality photos, so take the time to work on building up your image library. If you do have events or other projects that you are working on, take a few images just for yourself to use for stock sites. Or take the time to dedicate a few flights a month just to getting images for your stock photo accounts.
The reality is that selling photos and videos on stock sites is never going to make you rich, and it probably won’t even earn you a living. But once you’ve been approved for a couple stock photo accounts and keep adding images every so often, you should get a nice passive side income that takes relatively little time or effort on your part.
Do Aerial Wedding & Event Photography
Most professional photographers would love to make a living entirely off of their creative expressions, but put the bread on the table with commissioned projects. A great way to make money with a drone is by specializing in weddings and events. It’s becoming increasingly popular to get aerial shots and footage of weddings or other large family events, so it’s a great time to get into this market.
Wedding photographers may be thick on the ground, depending on your area, but with a drone you can partner up with a few of them to do aerial shots for events that they are booked for, and begin gaining your own reputation and brand.
It’s a good idea to start building your portfolio of aerial wedding shots, to showcase your skills to potential customers, or even to wedding photographers that you would like to partner with. You can do this by staging some wedding scenes, or going along on some photo shoots as a second or third photographer to build your skills and get some images for your own brand building.
Weddings and events also tend to lean a bit more toward videography than traditional photography might, and this is true with the aerial angle as well. An aerial film of the wedding location, procession, reception, etc. is a really cool addition to the standard wedding photography package, so spend some time to develop your aerial videography skills in addition to composing the perfect still shots. This is a bit different as it requires somewhat more skill at the controls, but is absolutely necessary to take your aerial wedding photography business to the top.
Skills to develop: Composing great still photography shots from the air, and crafting inspiring aerial videos.
Use Your Drone For Real Estate Photography
Selling properties is big business, and especially with high-end homes, a listing is almost expected these days to have a fly-through type video to showcase the exterior of the property. The best way to create aerial videos of real estate properties is obviously with a drone, and they can also easily snap still photos from an aerial perspective to show off the best angles of the home for sale.
While some real estate agents are jumping on the drone bandwagon and doing the photo shoots themselves, many are not ready to go buy and fly one for themselves, and would much rather hire someone to do the flying and get the photos and videos for them. It’s a great opportunity to use your drone and your skills to make some money selling drone photography services to realtors.
To start developing your skills in filming and taking aerial photos of houses, practice flying around your own house (or neighbors’ houses, with permission), looking for the best angles for stills, and practicing flight modes that best highlight the features of a house. In addition to simply developing your camera and drone flight skills, you can use images from these practice sessions to create a portfolio.
Once you have a good portfolio of aerial home photos and videos, you can look into getting hired by a few local real estate agencies to do photo shoots of any of their more luxurious properties that would merit the extra cost.
Don’t forget about the commercial property market either. Commercial properties are usually bigger sales deals, and larger properties can benefit even more from having an aerial perspective to showcase the size of the property, and highlight all the different aspects that might not be easily seen from the ground. Aerial photography also provides the opportunity for informative overlays of key features of a property, and with a little bit of work on Photoshop or Premiere Pro, you can really join the big leagues with your drone real estate photography.
Fly Your Drone For Roof & Building Inspections
There are a number of industries that hire drone operators to perform roof or building inspections. These could be insurance companies, utility or service companies, or construction firms.
In order to be hired by these types of industries, you’re going to have to prove your skill both as a drone pilot and a camera operator, as it requires technical expertise to get the angles and shots needed for specific data. A good approach if you want to get into flying a drone for inspections is to learn a little bit about the specific industry you are interested in and what their needs are for inspections.
For example, if you are interested in doing building inspections for insurance companies, you will need to know what types of information they are most interested in: possible water leakage areas, recent improvements, insulation quality, etc. In order to use your drone effectively to get this kind of information, you most likely will need to use thermal imaging, which requires specialized camera sensors.
An “entry level” drone with thermal sensors begins at around $3,500, so it may be a bit of an investment to get started, but the payoffs are also bigger, as the industries hiring drone operators for inspections expect to pay more for your specialized skills and equipment.
If it seems intimidating to learn how to fly and what you need for doing inspections with a drone, consider taking an online course to get you headed on the right track. These will tend to be industry specific, so focus in on one specific industry, and if you want to expand to others later, it won’t be too hard to transfer your skills and experience to another area.
Specialized equipment: Thermal imaging camera such as the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual.
Do Aerial Surveying & Mapping
Surveying and mapping with a drone is another area that is not going to be picked up without a bit of time and money investment at the outset. Surveying with a drone involves flying over a specified land area and collecting photos of the entire area to be stitched together using mapping software such as Pix4D or SimActive. These aerial images can also be used to create 3D models and reconstructions. Don’t think of this as a complicated panorama – it’s more like building a miniature model.
While photos taken by almost any average camera drone are able to be made into maps, drones with higher resolution are obviously going to provide better detail for more accurate maps. For industries such as construction and mining, your average GPS capabilities are not going to be specific enough in terms of geo-location and measurement. A construction company wants to know, down to the centimeter, where to start excavating for a building foundation. In order to get this level of location accuracy, you will need a drone with more precise geo-location data attached to each image. An entry level drone for surveying starts around $1,600.
To learn how to do aerial surveying, your best bet again is to find some online training courses to get you started. You will also need to learn how to use mapping software services to do something with the photos you collect with your drone.
Considering the initial investment of a surveying level drone and the training courses to get you qualified, the payoffs are pretty good, as an experienced aerial surveyor can expect to make a decent income.
Specialized equipment: A surveying drone such as the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0.
Fly a Drone For Public Safety & Emergency Services
Fire and police departments are increasingly using drones for a variety of uses, including search and rescue operations, fire scene monitoring, crowd surveillance and more. Depending on your area, your local fire department may have its own drone fleet and operators to carry out missions, or they may choose to outsource this work to certified and experienced drone operators.
In many rural areas where fire departments are primarily volunteer based, it doesn’t promise to pay much to fly drone missions in the service of your community. In suburban and urban areas, you can check with your local police and fire departments to see what their procedures are for including drone operations, and whether they outsource. If you happen to be employed with a public safety agency already, adding drone operations to your skill set could get you a pay raise.
To fly drone missions as a contractor with a public safety agency, you will need to have all the required certifications, and quite a bit of experience under your belt. Take some courses, log lots of flight hours, volunteer if necessary to get in with the agency you are interested in flying for.
Use Your Drone For Precision Agriculture
Farming, believe it or not, is a high tech business, and is increasingly using drone technology to optimize yields. There’s room here for drone operators who are not farmers themselves, as many farmers are simply too busy to learn the ins and outs of drone operations but would like to have access to the data they can provide.
Drones are the perfect tool for covering large areas of land (have you seen modern farm fields?), and getting detailed images of every corner of the land they cover. These images are used to scout for pest damage, evaluate growth rates, monitor irrigation systems, and even evaluate soil health. Sometimes these images are simple RGB photos, but more often they make use of different spectrum wavelengths with specialized sensors that gather data not visible to the naked eye (or standard camera image).
Learning how to use these sensors and make sense of the data they offer up is the steepest learning curve in flying a drone for precision agriculture. The actual drone flight can typically be automated by setting a flight path mission through the controller settings. To be successful as a precision agriculture drone pilot, your piloting skills are not as important as your knowledge of NDVI sensors and their related software systems.
Teach Others How to Fly a Drone
The drone industry continues to expand each year, which means that more and more aspiring drone pilots are looking for ways to develop their skills. If you have a few years of flight experience under your belt, and especially if you have learned drone skills related to specific industries, you have something to teach novice, or even more experienced drone pilots.
Many areas have drone clubs as a way to meet other enthusiasts and learn from each other. This is a great venue for offering a course for beginners, or possibly a more specialized course for advanced pilots wanting to learn a specific skill.
Another way to use your expertise as a teaching tool is through creating an online course. This could be through creating your own website and building your own brand, or you could start out with a course marketed through another platform such as udemy.
The nice thing about a virtual course is that once you go through the process of creating the lessons and making the videos, the work is done, and you continue to make money from the course any time someone buys it. However, it lacks the satisfaction and inherent reward that comes through interaction with your students and seeing them progress with your instruction.
Like teaching in any field, the most important groundwork is building your curriculum, deciding what should be included in the course, and breaking it into manageable lesson-sized pieces. Then you need to find a way to get across the information or skills to the learners in the most effective way possible. With a skills based course that would probably make up the majority of drone instruction, this will probably include drills, assignments and tasks to help achieve mastery of specific skills.
Unless you’re teaching in-person courses full time, or are able to build up a big online brand and presence, you may be challenged to make a living with teaching drone flight skills. But if you enjoy the teaching process and are good at flying a drone, teaching others to fly is a great way to earn a nice side income.
What’s Involved With Starting a Drone Business?
As with any type of business, starting out can be daunting. With a drone business it’s no different, as there are a lot of pieces to consider, money to invest, skills to learn. The reassuring part is that many others have figured out how to successfully fly drones and make money, and a good many of those are making a comfortable living at it as well. Learn from them, and you can do it too.
Here are some of the pieces to consider when starting a drone business. You will need to become an FAA-certified drone pilot under Part 107. Then you will need to invest in the right drone for the job, get operating insurance, and spend time and money developing your drone skills and marketing your business.
FAA Part 107
Anyone flying drones commercially must have a drone pilot’s license through the FAA. It’s called a Part 107, and basically consists of passing a knowledge test about drone flight, safety and procedures. After passing your Part 107 test, you will also need to register your drone or drones with the FAA. The part 107 pilot’s license requirement applies to anyone using a drone for financial gain, even if it’s a side-job.
Passing the Part 107 knowledge test is not as challenging as it might sound, and you might compare it to the written test that goes along with getting a driver’s license. You do need to study and know what to expect, and there are plenty of online courses available to help you know what you need to know, making it fairly straightforward to pass the test. At this time there is no skill test (think driving test) required to become a certified drone pilot.
If you are operating a business such as drone photography, inspections, surveying, or agriculture, it’s a good idea to have insurance. You may not need it to create online teaching courses, but then again you probably should if you are teaching courses at your local drone club.
Plan to have commercial liability insurance at the minimum, which means that you are covered in the case of causing damage to others’ property with your drone. If you want hull coverage for your drone itself, that’s going to be another add-on, as well as coverage for your other gear and equipment.
Companies such as DroneInsurance.com offer on-demand insurance, which means you can choose a plan that will give you coverage for the times you’re flying, but where you don’t have to pay anything when you’re grounded (seasonal jobs, etc.). This is a great way to start out a small time drone business, but when you’re getting to be a bigger drone business, you may want to go another way that will offer more comprehensive coverage.
Building Your Skill Set
For any type of professional drone operations, there is going to be a learning curve. It is definitely possible to learn what you need just by hard work, lots of flight time, and scouring the internet for the knowledge you lack. In many cases there is no substitute for the hard work and hours of practice.
To get where you need to go faster, there’s a lot to be said for getting some specific training, whether it’s online courses, community college courses, or learning from a mentor. Find others who know more than you do about how to fly a drone in the industry you are interested in and learn from them. If you’re doing this as a business, it’s an investment.
Building Your Reputation
As you are growing your drone piloting skills, you can also be working on building your reputation as a drone pilot in your chosen field. Market yourself online through creating a website to showcase your work, or connecting with others in your industry on LinkedIn. Advertise your services through print resources such as the local paper or industry-specific publications. Get the word out, and start making money with your drone.