Looking for a job that pays six figures? Consider a gig working for yourself — and entering the field of freelance drone pilots.
It worked for Andrew Dean, who had been working as a waiter after leaving his job with the U.S. Air Force. Four years ago, he invested in drone equipment, as well as a thermography certification course to boost his skill set. This year, the Colorado-based drone pilot is on track to break $200,000.
His story is not unique.
“You can earn a couple hundred bucks for a package of real estate photos,” said Denver-based drone pilot Vic Moss, who is also a co-owner of the online community Drone U. “Flying drones part-time can earn you $500 or $600 a week, and by flying full-time, you can make six-figures annually. Flying for big name companies can net you $3,500 a day.”
A day in the life of a drone pilot
For a drone pilot, no day is ever the same. Most drone pilots work as freelance contractors, flying drones for major companies and small businesses. They’re using drones for everything from gathering thermal images of the ground to producing 3-D models of buildings.
Tampa, Fla.-based drone pilot PJ Cook’s work includes using a drone to document apartment construction near the University of South Florida, as well as using a drone to scan the sites of Costco’s new warehouses.
Willingness to travel is an important job requirement. Moss just returned from New Mexico after finishing a job for a fire investigator who wanted aerial images to find ignition points. He’s traveled as far as Guatemala.
For many drone pilots, flying drones augments their existing work. Moss has been a Denver-based professional photographer since 1988, but has recently added drone photography to his portfolio, which he says now makes up about 20% of his total work.
How much money do you make as a drone pilot?
Dean is on track to make $200,000 this year through his drone business. But it wasn’t always that easy.
“My first year, I ran at a loss,” Dean said. That first year also came with his biggest investment, including buying gear, a laptop, thermal cameras and a thermography certification.
His second year, he made $30,000 through primarily real estate and construction jobs. In his third year, a massive storm hit, which brought significantly more business, netting him about $80,000.
Although Dean is on track to make $200,000 this year, he did have huge startup costs. Beyond traditional expenses like marketing, travel, supplies and a computer, there’s the drone equipment, as well as certifications and licensing expenses.
Dean said that he lands most of his highest-paying gigs because of his thermography certification. Each level of thermography certification costs $2,000, and there are three levels (Dean has a level three certification).
Drones range from about $1,000 to more than $10,000. Flight planning startup Kittyhawk says the most commonly used drone among its users is the DJI Mavic Pro, which costs less than $1,000. For pilots who want to carry a thermal camera, the most popular drone is the DJI Inspire 2, which costs about $3,000. An accompanying thermal camera, such as Flir’s Zenmuse XT2, can cost $10,000.
While DJI has an estimated 70% to 80% share of the market, other drones on the market range from GoPro’s Karma on the low-end — primarily being used for traditional visual images like real estate photography — to the high-end, $40,000 Intel Falcon 8, which is used for surveys and inspections.
Drones also require accessories, like memory cards, car chargers and cases. Moss says he carries 13 batteries with him. (Each DJI Phantom battery costs $149).
Then there is insurance. Moss’s insurance policy costs him $2,700 a year. He recommends pilots have business liability, as well as hull coverage, which covers physical property damage. Some major insurance companies like State Farm will cover drones, which could be a good idea for full-time drone pilots. For people flying occasionally, companies like DroneInsurance.com or Verifly offer on-demand drone insurance, where pilots pay for shorter periods of coverage — some as little as by the hour.
The Federal Aviation Administration also requires that commercial drone pilots have a Part 107 drone pilot license, which costs $150 and must be renewed every two years.
Airbnb for drone pilots
Where does the business come from? Some companies like Washington, D.C.-based Measure market themselves as drone service providers and hire full-time pilots on staff.
There’s also a growing list of companies that function as an “Uber for drone pilots.” Sites like DroneBase allow customers in need of aerial imagery to place an order for the images they want, and one of DroneBase’s contracted pilots will fly the drone and send them the images.
DroneBase’s customers include real-estate agents or developers who want aerial images of their properties and insurance companies that want aerial images to help process claims for cases such as roof damage. DroneBase’s packages range from $99 to $449 per job, and the contracted pilots get a cut.
“DroneBase jobs will kick out $70 for an inspection that takes me 15 minutes,” said Denver-based Dean. “I can do three of those in an hour.”
But most freelance drone pilots say that DroneBase doesn’t generate enough business for them to work full-time as a contractor for the company. Most pilots say about 20% of their total business comes from DroneBase, while the other 80% comes from personal clients they’ve generated through networking, SEO or word-of-mouth.
Most of a pilot’s business is weather-contingent, which means extreme cold and wind can shut down business, while the aftermath of a storm could mean an influx of business. Dean specializes in using drones for post-storm damage inspections, which means he only gets that kind of rapid business in the wake of a storm.
But storms present even more challenges for the pilot.
“A lot of folks think you make a fortune during hurricanes,” Cook said. “We were hit pretty good with the last hurricane in Florida, but you need power to recharge your drones, and you need to be able to commute to the job site. I had people request filming but I couldn’t get there because the roads were closed.”
Among the other challenges for starting an aerial photography business: obtaining licenses, mastering social media and operating not just as a photographer, but a salesperson.
Teaching drone classes as a side hustle
Another avenue for making money in drones? Drone classes.
And ever since vacation rental company Airbnb launched its “Experiences” service in 2016, some drone pilots have been offering drone lessons to Airbnb customers.
Airbnb Experiences is a concept where, instead of renting out their home, hosts offer up their services — whether it’s providing a cooking class, surf school — or yes, drone lessons. Airbnb takes a 20% cut of whatever the cost of the Airbnb Experience is, but hosts set their own price.
New York drone pilot Elena Buenrostro charges $100 for a one-hour drone lesson, so she makes $80 per student. In peak tourist season, she says she will average around 10 students a week. But like other drone piloting-jobs, it’s also weather-dependent. Few students want to book the activity when it’s cold, and she can’t teach if it’s snowing or raining.
Her class teaches students how to set up their drone if they already have one, as well as photography basics.
For remote students, she also offers drone lessons as a contractor through photo retailer Polar Pro. The photography gear site last month expanded its offering from selling photo gear to launching PolarPro EDU, a series of live, one-on-one educational classes. Buenrostro, who is also the founder of Women Who Drone, teaches the Intro to Drone Cinematography classes, which cost students $149.99 for an hour long session.
Is the market for freelance drone pilots oversaturated?
As drones become more easily accessible, some pilots say the market is getting more saturated.
But it is also turning into a blessing in disguise for Buenrostro. While she gets offered fewer gigs shooting videos, more people are buying drones, which means more people needing lessons.
“I’m heading in the direction of teaching full-time,” Buenrostro said.
And as drones become ubiquitous, more companies are learning how they can benefit from aerial data. Farmers are increasingly seeking aerial data to optimize water or pesticide usage, biologists are using them to track animal patterns, and construction companies want aerial images to survey their progress.
For Dean, he’s only seen business grow, not shrink.
The secret to making 6-figures in drones? Specialize
Drone pilots say the market for easy drone piloting jobs, like taking simple real estate photos, is the most crowded. But the pilots who are making six-figures say the trick is to specialize.
Moss said the people who are making the most money have GIS and mapping experience. Dean has cornered the market in aerial thermal imagery for commercial restorations.
“It’s a niche inside of a niche,” Dean said. “There are only about three to four of us in the entire U.S. who have that level of expertise, so there’s no competition.”
Dean’s latest job includes doing an entire inspection of the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is undergoing a massive $1.4 billion renovation. That job is expected to net him $200,000.
But the truth is, the job title of drone pilot isn’t all fun and games.
“People think you just go fly a toy all day,” Dean said, but the Vegas job will take him 14 days to fly around the entire building, and after that, it will take him four months to generate a report.
“It’s not just flying around and taking pictures,” he said. “People see me flying a drone around the Las Vegas Strip and think I have the coolest job ever, but they don’t see that I’ve been working on the accompanying report since November.”
Add billing, invoicing and marketing, and actually flying the drone only makes up a small percentage of the day, Moss added.
Moss said that while more people are trying to make it as a drone pilot, there’s plenty of room to be successful.
“It’s similar to photography, when the digital revolution came and everybody could buy a digital camera and call themselves a photographer,” he said. “That’s what is going on with drones right now.”
“It’s just the nature of free markets,” Moss said. “The market will get saturated, and then it will go back down. But don’t compete with price. Compete with quality.”