A Complete Guide to How Much Drone Pilots Make, the Best Drones to Use, and How to Find Clients in Real Estate.
After several years of applying drone imagery to the marketing of real estate, what can we learn about the viability and profitability of this practice? Capturing aerial photographs and video clips for real estate listings is an entire industry unto itself, let there be no doubt.
When taking a high-level view of the entire U.S. market, it continues to enjoy appreciable growth. The drone services market size is expected to reach USD 40.7 Billion by 2026 from USD 13.9 Billion in 2021, at a CAGR of 23.8% (ref. Markets and Markets). Congruently, the residential real estate market saw 6.5 million transactions yielding USD 2.3 Trillion in revenue during 2021.
Let’s bring that math and market size down to the grassroots level and discuss some of the realities that typical drone operators can expect.
What does the “Real Estate” market mean to drone pilots?
Before we dive into details about commercial expectations, best choices in hardware, and obtaining a client base, we should slice this market into a few main sectors and categories. It is vital to understand the diversity under the heading “real estate”…
First, with respect to drone application, we can see real estate separated along these three main pillars: commercial, residential, and undeveloped land.
Next, we consider a simple divider that applies to both commercial and residential: inside and outside.
In terms of capturing content, real estate imagery is mainly about marketing properties, thus:
- technical shot-list driven approach
- artistic freelance
- combination of these two
From an operational standpoint, preparations and pilot skills fall in some or all of:
- City, or in-town
- rural open land
- weather requirements
- airspace limitations-restrictions
And finally, consider if your assignments are or can be singular or grouped together. Many real estate projects involve multiple sites.
On top of understanding and deciding the focus of your operation, clients are of course looking for absolute excellence for a low bid. If profitability is critical for your business, it’s a good idea to review what segments of the real estate market interest you since some carry more costs than others. We will expand on this aspect in the sections following.
So how much do drone pilots make?
There are several ways to answer this seemingly straightforward question, and we will explore a number of these paths. So the true answer to this question is…it depends. Many factors are in place which dictate what your final compensation will look like.
And revenue is NOT profitability. Generating top-line revenue for your business is exciting and motivating, especially when you launch your business. But expenses and sunken costs need to be considered when addressing this issue to get an honest accounting.
Also, think about how the drone industry has continued to evolve over the past 7 years. There are more pilots, now more than 200,000 Part 107 licenses as of January 2021 per the FAA, so competition has steadily increased.
Combine the larger pilot pool with the fact that real estate is easily the largest vertical market within commercial drone activity, and things are getting more crowded. That has caused pricing and bidding to stabilize into a market-driven level that doesn’t resemble those seen back in 2015.
This means acceptable ranges have essentially been established for commensurate services. There are also many entities finding ways to profit from being in the middle of the commercial process, whole companies that provide projects for a finder’s fee in exchange for bringing that opportunity to your operation.
So even though we are seeing hourly fees and project pricing normalizing, you still have some degree of control over your profitability. As stated earlier, it depends…let’s look below.
What the statistics say
When you are hired by a corporation or service, the answer is easily found with the following reports:
ZipRecruiter – $58,280 per year
Salary.com – from $59,787 to $98,083
A few caveats though. It is rare that a position is offered exclusively for “drone operator”, so these numbers could be reflective of an employee who is cross-utilized and/or has other responsibilities, such as a program manager at a construction company. Once again, it depends!
So for the sake of this narrative, we will assume the answer will satisfy the person who will free-lance as the owner/operator of their own business. Here is what you can find on the internet:
Droneblog – $158/hour – see our article on What to Charge for Drone Services »
Thumbtack – $126-$150/hour
The question as to how much a drone pilot can make as an owner/operator is down to how many projects and missions he/she can secure. Applying the $158/hour metric seen above as reported on Droneblog, here is the math:
- Scenario 1 – 8 one-hour jobs per month X 12 X $158 = $14,400 per year
- Scenario 2 – 20 one-hour jobs per month x 12 x $158 = $37, 920 per year
- Scenario 3 – 50 one-hour jobs per month x 12 x $158 = $94,800 per year
Again, we report top-line revenue in the examples above. What you “make” depends on your outlook in terms of revenue versus profitability.
What the real world looks like
Having made several key commercial decisions about my own operation, and without revealing too much information, I am happy to share select real data to drive the point home regarding what an actual drone operation does look like.
A little about our drone business…we are a two-person operation, rely on a fleet of 4 drones (all DJI models), work with two PC’s (one for operations, one for video editing), and for ground imagery use a HERO GoPro and a few DSLR cameras.
We have been in business since 2017, steadily growing our client base, number of projects per year, and certainly our revenues. We perform projects no farther than a 3-hour drive from our home office, as cost begins to spiral on travel beyond this limit.
While we work with a published schedule of charges, almost all of our pricing is determined on a bidding system, so we have a miniscule number of quotes using the hourly rate approach and instead work on an all-inclusive project price. We find this reduces any pressures on how fast or slow we work and allows us the ability to maintain a profit margin north of 50%.
Here is the bottom line on what we “make”:
Revenue per project average: $165
The best drones to use for real estate drone photography
Much has to be considered when selecting your equipment for real estate imagery. There are many solid options available, but one has to look at what you need to fulfill the mission. And like the variance we see within this market, so goes the type of imagery you must capture.
What kind of requirements have to be satisfied? It’s pretty easy to both under- and over- buy, so some basic minimums have to be identified in order to succeed in providing the client with what they want.
You can run the gamut when it comes to altitude. Customers typically want low, passing shots down to 15 feet AGL and on up to the 400 foot AGL maximum altitude for wide, revealing shots.
They also require things like orbital photos and video from various altitudes, so you need a steady, cinematic motion when shooting video utilizing PoI (Point of Interest) found in some DJI drones. You can count on being in the air for at least 20 minutes, so battery life is also paramount.
Sometimes clients want interior imagery. So here is a list of the features that will aid in safe and high-quality real estate jobs:
Working at flight levels between 10-50 feet AGL happens frequently around buildings, trees, wires, and light poles. A good idea to supplement with a VO (maybe adds cost?).
Cinematic flight mode
Removes jerky transitions when shooting video by slowing down corrective motions and course direction by simply slowing down direction change response time.
An automatic flight mode that allows the drone to fly a perfect circle or arc at various altitudes and distances.
Indoor aerial capability
Steady and controlled flight without the aid of GPS satellite connectivity, such as collision avoidance using optics and cinematic/tripod mode. It may be better to acquire a second, smaller aircraft to maneuver more easily and minimize prop wash.
Resulting photo and video
Better quality images are vital for clients, so invest in the best camera available. Getting high resolution is more critical than zoom capability.
Battery life/long flight time
Typically, real estate shot lists include high-altitude orbitals, which can take up to 3 minutes for a single 360-degree swing. With wind, the battery will be taxed. Look for the longest flight times available. Also count on a minimum of three batteries per shoot, which means time to land, change, and take off again.
LiDAR/Photogrammetry and Thermal Infrared
Consider these technologies as supplemental to the base drone platform to increase aerial services. LiDAR and accompanying photogrammetry software is growing for real estate development as mapping from above creates the best 3-D renderings.
Additionally, Thermal Infrared capability through FLIR camera technology allows heat mapping, highly effective when capturing roof and structure integrity from above.
Lastly, most clients will actually stipulate in detail what capture techniques they want, list specific camera settings, and the drone models they require, knowing very well what capabilities and features are included with the drone they indicate.
When this happens, both the DJI Phantom 4 Pro and the DJI Mavic 2 Pro are always indicated. Both models cover the list above in terms of features and capabilities, but both are discontinued.
The corresponding replacements are the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 and the DJI Mavic 3 (with Hasselblad camera), boasting even better performance than their predecessors. Clearly, DJI is the industry de-facto standard.
As the adage goes, “nobody ever gets fired for hiring IBM ” …and this would be true with DJI and drone work.
How to find real estate drone photography clients
Using drone technology for marketing imagery was adopted in the early 2010s within the real estate industry, easily among the first industries to do so. Prior to using drones, high-end properties were being marketed with dramatic aerial photographs and videos from helicopters.
With the advent of quadcopters platforming decent cameras, the application of aerial photographs at a fraction of the cost opened the market to properties below the multi-million dollar estate level.
The first clients for independent drone operators exploded in real estate, particularly in the commercial/industrial sector. Suffice it to say, drone imagery has since more than proven itself as a valuable tool to help market properties and inform sellers and buyers.
So how can a drone operator get a piece of this action? Keep in mind that the space has become competitive and crowded. It’s not just finding clients; you have to win the business.
I recently received an invitation to bid on a commercial real estate project in the Atlanta area with a stated budget ceiling of around $280 for what amounted to 1.5 hours of actual onsite work. I submitted my bid with optimism based on experience and what I thought was a reasonable bid amount…only to be crestfallen when I saw 25 other providers had also bid.
The point: you can’t just rely on hanging a sign out in the market and expect business to fly in (pun intended) because this is a hip, burgeoning technology. At the end of the process, the cool-quotient doesn’t matter, it’s about good service at a fair price.
Finding clients is process-driven and does require marketing fundamentals. As mentioned above, it will not just appear. Before you do anything, make sure you fully understand what you MUST charge to be solvent.
Once you know your break-even point, do some market research on what other drone companies charge, then decide what your “rack rate”, or default schedule of charges will be, knowing this is highly negotiable given the fluid and volatile nature of what clients will pay.
I would also recommend creating a differentiator, because as previously stated, drone services have become a commodity. Something to make you stand out in the crowd. This could come in the form of coverage area, pricing and packaging, satisfaction guarantee, do you offer ground/inside photography, or rapid delivery time…things that apply for any service business.
Now that you have a commercial yardstick, here are a number of channels to pursue to land clients:
Literally everywhere there are realtors. Some are affiliated with large firms, some are independent. Design and execute a contact plan based on a list of local targets and do some calling. Know that in general realtors either already have a service, or some are doing drone work themselves. So be thinking about an introductory offer to prove yourself.
Establish an internet presence
Prospective clients need to review and understand your services. Online, that can mean a website, Facebook page, etc. Prior to this, you should have created a portfolio of images and videos to showcase your ability as well as lining up your credentials and services. Make sure you are able to utilize tracking metrics.
Work with local mailer marketers. Also, create flyers and mail to local businesses/realtors, mortgage services, any establishment that deals with real estate. Understand that sometimes clients can be buyers of real estate. Try to track how much activity this program triggers, and if it doesn’t yield acceptable results, consider changing how to advertise.
Join an internet bid service
Sign your drone operation up with websites that match drone operators with drone customers who need services (such as Job for Drones, DroneUp). Also, look up government projects that deal with land, construction, and property management (i.e. www.bidprime.com).
There is no substitute for a client referral when you are offering a service, especially when the service requires some amount of discretion and interpretation. While this is challenging for a fledgling business, it is crucial that excellent service can be demonstrated and confirmed. This is the primary differentiator any business can put forward.
Experience has taught me to cast a wide net across the real estate sectors in trying to find new business. The techniques and shot lists from commercial to residential to open land do present similarities.
A fly-over is essentially the same whether a storage facility, a house, or an open tract of land is underneath. If your preference is to perform services on residential, that’s fine, but should an opportunity come along for something else, know that clients can be diverse, just like the entirety of the real estate market.
The current real estate market is vast, diverse, and continues to change. It brings more and more opportunities to aerial imagery as more applications and techniques are identified, such as photogrammetry and thermal/infrared technology. The opportunities within real estate represent the majority of the overall drone industry activity and have evolved into a crowded and competitive landscape.
The amount of revenue drone services can generate is directly proportionate to how much work they are able to secure. This is due to the hourly and job rates that the market has established, which on average fall into $150/hour or $165/project. The market continues to adjust to the growing demand and the number of drone services that are active in the space.
Drone hardware selection for real estate requirements has standardized on variants of the DJI Phantom Pro 4 and the DJI Mavic Pro. The onboard features for piloting as well as resulting imagery quality from these products are what clients have come to expect in satisfying their needs for marketing and surveying content. Therefore, either of these quadcopters are recommended for real estate commercial drone operations. These same drones are also a solid platform for upcoming applications such as photogrammetry and infrared technologies.
Finding new clients is proving to be more challenging in an already crowded market like residential real estate. In preparations for presenting a drone services business, establish a good understanding of an acceptable and profitable schedule of charges…what kind of pricing will work. Even though drone technology is viewed as innovative, using classic marketing techniques combined with a particular focus on the real estate community is proven and effective. A combination of personal contact and electronic channels should be the essential elements of a marketing plan. Once enacted, keep statistics through tracking each channel to see which works best in contacting and securing new clients.