Drone Business 101: 11 steps to launching a small business as a drone pilot

The drone industry is buzzing with potential, and launching your own drone business can be a way to work for yourself — bringing in the benefits of no boss and flexible hours — and perhaps more importantly, to make big money.

But while there are certainly many drone pilots earning six-figure salaries, launching a drone business isn’t for everyone. You need to have the right set of skills, and finding your niche can feel overwhelming. Plus, there are plenty of legalities to navigate, and there’s no shortage of costs involved, from buying the right equipment to understanding drone insurance.

This guide will equip you with the essential knowledge to launch your drone business and soar to success.

1. Get licensed

Most countries have their own set of regulations for commercial drone use. If you’re launching a drone business in the U.S., familiarize yourself with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 certification process. If flying outside the U.S., understand the equivalent regulations (e.g. getting a drone pilot certificate from Transport Canada).

Get your Part 107 certificate

Under Part 107, operating a drone for business purposes in the U.S. without proper licensing is actually illegal. To get a drone pilot’s license in the US., you must pass a written test, which ensures you understand subject areas like airspace classifications (controlled vs. uncontrolled airspace) and restrictions (like no-fly zones near airports).

To take the test, you must be at least 16 years old. From there, you’ll encounter 60 multiple-choice questions. You’ll need to score at least 70% to pass.

The FAA offers online resources and in-person workshops to help you navigate the certification process. That said, I recommend enrolling in an online Part 107 drone training course to completely cover everything you need to know. Courses such as Drone Pilot Ground School also typically include practice tests so you ensure you go into the test prepared (and don’t have to pay another test fee should you fail and need to retake it!).

2. Know potential other legalities

When you fly as a commercial drone pilot under Part 107, you’re subject to a number of rules. For many common drone flights, you’ll need a waiver or airspace authorization — you can’t just fly whenever you want. For example, here are a few of the following types of drone flights that require you to get a waiver in the U.S.:

  • Certain flights from or over a moving vehicle or aircraft
  • Certain flights at night
  • Certain flights over people
  • Flights beyond your visual line of sight
  • Flights in certain airspace

Getting a waiver can often require hiring a lawyer (or having some legal know-how to fill out the waiver yourself). Learn more about Part 107 waivers.

3. Find your niche

Once you’re certified and no what sorts of flights you can and can’t do, it’s time to find out where you want to specialize. With drones, it’s better to be a master of one field than a jack of all trades. After all, drones are used for fields including photography, mapping, inspections, delivery, spraying — for industries including Hollywood films, agriculture, construction, oil and gas, and more.

You might even launch your own drone light show business.

Among the easiest fields to break into is real estate photography. After all aerial real estate photos can really help sell homes — especially lavish estates with impressive outdoor features like pools or sprawling land. Even indoor drones offer compelling fly through videos that go a long way in selling homes. But given the ease, it’s also a competitive area.

Thus, it can make more sense to pursue high-growth, less-competitive sectors like:

  • Industrial inspections: Inspect wind turbines, power lines, and other hard-to-reach infrastructure for damage or wear, saving companies time and money on maintenance.
  • Precision agriculture: Assist farmers in monitoring crop health, optimizing irrigation, and applying targeted pesticides or fertilizers, leading to increased yields and sustainability.
  • Construction progress tracking and mapping: Capture detailed aerial data to track construction progress, identify potential delays, and create 3D models for improved project management.
  • Search and rescue operations (partner with qualified organizations): Partner with certified search and rescue teams to locate missing persons in disaster zones or difficult terrain, potentially saving lives.

According to the 2022 Drone Application Report from German analytics company Drone Industry Insights (DII), the top 3 industries using drones are:

  1. Energy (14% of all drone applications)
  2. Construction (12% of all drone applications)
  3. Agriculture (9% of all drone applications)

Deciding which niche to settle on can vary based on factors including your own interests, coupled with your region and startup costs. If you live near farmland, then agriculture can inherently make more sense. If you’re in Texas, you might have better luck landing oil and gas clients.

It also depends on how much money you’re willing to spend on gear and training upfront. You could get away with taking aerial real estate photos using a camera drone under $1,000, with minimal training aside from a Part 107 certification.

Enroll in specialized training

To work with higher-paying clients like oil and gas companies, you’ll likely need to undergo specialized training in aerial mapping. You can still do this for much less than the cost of a college degree. For example, UAV Coach’s Drone Mapping Essentials 2-Day Workshop is an in-person course that costs $1,999. If you’re fine with online, solo learn, the “Drone Mapping And Modeling Fundamentals,” online course teaches you how to collect and process data using easy-to-fly (and easy-to acquire) drones like a DJI Mavic 2 Pro or a DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 and costs $400.

But, it’s still money you might not have as a small business upfront.

From there, you’ll need more expensive drones that are capable of carrying advanced sensors, such as thermal cameras. You’ll also likely need drone mapping software, which also generally isn’t cheap.

4. Plan your business structure

With a better idea of the work you’d like to do, it’s time to write a business plan. With that include current budgets and financial projections. Check out NerdWallet’s guide to writing a business plan and creating a business budget.

You’ll also need to settle on your business structure. The best business structure varies by the work you’re doing and how large you anticipating growing.

  • For sole proprietorships, the start-up process is simple, but you face unlimited personal liability for any debts or lawsuits.
  • Partnerships offer shared ownership and profits, but liability is also shared.
  • Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) provide a balance, shielding your personal assets while offering some flexibility in management structure.
  • Corporations offer the strongest liability protection but come with more complex regulations and tax implications.

Consider factors like liability exposure, ownership structure, and tax goals when selecting the business structure that best suits your drone business.

Account for taxes

Speaking of, you might want to hire an account for your business. Online bookkeeping service Pilot might be a good option for growing startups. Though, it could be too expensive for small businesses who might be better suited for their own small business accounting software.

If you’re not filing as a sole proprietor, then you may need to get a federal tax ID.

Consider a business bank account

Though not required for sole proprietors, it can make sense to open a business bank account so you keep your business and personal finances separate. Among the biggest benefits is simply making it easier to deduct business expenses come tax time.

Get a business credit card

Even if you don’t have an entirely new business bank account, applying for a business credit card almost certainly makes sense. Again, this makes it easy to separate business and personal expenses.

If you need to finance office supplies, drone gear and other expenses (more on that later), a business credit card can make for an easy way to do that. Plus, business credit cards also typically offer benefits on business spending that can get you money back, or at least net you with rewards like airline frequent flyer miles.

I personally use and recommend two business credit cards: the Southwest Business Credit Card and the Ink Business Cash Credit Card.

Though the Southwest Business Credit Card has a $199 annual fee, I justify it through benefits like 9,000 Southwest anniversary points (NerdWallet values 9,000 Southwest points at about $135), free in-flight WiFi and a $100 Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or NEXUS fee credit. I’m almost always flying Southwest to get to various drone conferences (and to see drone light shows!), which makes this a good credit card for my travels.

The Ink Business Cash Credit Card is great because it has no annual fee, yet it offers generous rewards. Most notably, it earns 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent each year at office supply stores, on internet cable and phone services. It also offers 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent each year at gas stations and restaurants. All those things can be huge business spending areas, making for a ripe opportunity to earn rewards.

5. Buy the right drone gear

The Sony Airpeak S1 drone

Upon choosing a niche, setting up your business and perhaps even having a new credit card, it’s time to buy the right gear. The best drone for a Hollywood filmmaker is not the same as the best drone for flying over crops spraying herbicides.

Typically, the more advanced the operation, the higher you can charge for your drone flying services. Then again, executing an advanced project might require you to have a more expensive drone.

DroneDeploy, which is one of the world’s biggest drone mapping software companies, shared a list of the top 10 most-used drones among its customers in 2024. Those are:

  1. DJI Mavic 3E
  2. DJI Zenmuse P1
  3. DJI Mavic 2 Pro
  4. DJI Phantom 4 Pro
  5. DJI Air 2S
  6. DJI Phantom 4 RTK
  7. DJI Mavic 3T
  8. Sensefly SODA
  9. Sony RX1
  10. Skydio 2+

Clearly most of those drones cost many thousands of dollars. The most popular drone among its customers, the DJI Mavic 3E is designed specifically for industrial, corporate, and first responder applications, and it costs $4,000.

When picking the best drone for your business, consider factors like payload capacity, image quality, and weather resistance. And that’s not the only hardware cost to account for. Don’t forget spare batteries, propellers, and a reliable carrying case.

Financing a drone can make sense, but it can also get you into financial hot water if you’re not prepared to take on thousands of dollars in debt. Only buy expensive gear if you have a solid business plan to pay it off.

6. Register your drones

Once you have the right drone, it’s time to register. After all, most countries require you register your drone. Again, exact processes vary by country, so check with the local aviation authority. If flying for business purposes in the U.S., you must register your drone with the FAA. There’s a small, $5 registration fee, and registration is valid for three years.

Learn more about how to register your drones here.

7. Insure your drone business

Operating a drone business comes with inherent risks. Accidents can happen, and even a minor mishap can damage your expensive drone equipment. Liability concerns are also a factor – if your drone causes property damage or injury during operation, you could be facing significant financial repercussions.

Though the FAA does not legally require drone insurance to fly in the U.S. drone insurance helps mitigate these risks. And some other countries DO require drone insurance.

With drone insurance, you generally encounter two types:

Hull Coverage: This protects your drone itself from physical damage caused by accidents, crashes, theft, or even fire. Hull coverage policies typically offer different coverage levels, allowing you to choose the level of protection that best suits your needs and budget. Consider factors like the value of your drone, the replacement cost, and the specific risks associated with your chosen niche when selecting a hull coverage plan.

Liability Coverage: This protects you from financial responsibility if your drone causes property damage or bodily injury during operation. Imagine a scenario where your drone malfunctions and crashes into a car or injures a bystander. Without liability coverage, you could be held personally liable for the damages incurred. Liability insurance provides a vital financial safety net, covering legal fees and settlements associated with such incidents.

There are all sorts of drone insurance providers. Lately though, I recommend SkyWatch.ai., which is an aviation-focused insurance policy offering flexible plans (hourly, daily and monthly).

Learn more about getting drone insurance here.

8. Network

Connect with other drone pilots in your area, not as competitors, but as colleagues. Share knowledge, resources, and collaborate on projects that require multiple pilots or specialized skills.

Build relationships with local businesses that could benefit from your drone services, such as construction companies, real estate agencies, or agricultural firms. Attend drone industry events and conferences to network with potential clients, stay updated on the latest trends, and learn from experienced drone professionals.

9. Build your brand

There’s so much that goes into building your brand beyond what one blog post can cover — and the steps to build one brand can be completely different than another. A real estate agent might rely heavily on local Instagram marketing. Meanwhile, a B2B business might be better off reaching out to clients on LinkedIn.

10. Plan for profit

How much money can you charge as a drone pilot? Just as a burrito costs more in San Francisco versus in Cabo san Lucas, prices for drone piloting can vary by region. They also can value based on work involved and your own skill.

Develop a pricing strategy that considers your operational costs, the value you deliver to clients, and market competitiveness.

To do that, research competitor rates. From there, offer competitive packages that cater to different project budgets and needs. Consider offering hourly rates, fixed project fees, or retainer agreements for ongoing services. Factor in the cost of software subscriptions for editing photos or videos, insurance premiums, and any marketing expenses you incur.

11. Stay up-to-date

Knowledge is power. And since the drone industry is evolving rapidly, your knowledge also must evolve. Subscribe to industry publications, attend workshops, and stay informed about regulatory changes and technological advancements. Yes, that includes subscribing to this website, right here!

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By following these steps and fostering a passion for safe, skilled drone operation, you’ll be well on your way to launching a thriving drone business and taking your place in the ever-expanding world of aerial innovation.

What do you wish you knew ahead of launching a drone business? Share your top drone business tips in the comments below!

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