5 Steps to be a Drone Pilot & Make Money

By Hal Simmons •  Updated: 01/13/20 •  10 min read

So, you’ve been spending a lot of time flying drones lately and think you are ready to become a drone pilot. You’ve mastered the basic maneuvers and commands necessary for a safe and successful flight. You love the sound of a quad copter buzzing overhead and the sight of a drone as it zooms away to its next adventure. The birds-eye view you can see in your monitor excites you and you love sharing that view with everyone around you.

If any of that sounds familiar, you’re ready to take drone piloting to the next level. Are you skilled at taking aerial photos and video of landscapes, buildings, people, and more? Are you ready to invest in some more advanced equipment to move into a niche market? If so, you’re in luck: you may be able to turn your hobby into a hustle and make money as a drone pilot.

Step One: Get Certified as a Drone Pilot

The first step towards making money as a drone pilot is to become certified by the FAA, the Federal Aviation Association. They govern all things relating to flight in the United States: aircrafts, airports, air traffic, and unmanned aircraft systems (also known as UAS). A drone falls into the UAS category. So to become an official drone pilot, you must obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate. Having this credential means that you know the regulations, requirements, and safe operating procedures for this type of aircraft. Their is great training available online and in person. Here is a list of the best drone training I found.

Remote Pilot License

In order to be eligible for a Remote Pilot Certificate, you have to be at least 16 years old, communicate fluently in English, be of good physical and mental health, and pass the relevant exam. Once certified, pilots must retest every two years to keep their certificate in good standing. If you already have a different type of pilot’s license, the exam is a bit more simplified, but the process is largely the same. There are several training courses available online and in-person that can help you prepare for the exam. You may find that these courses, though they will incur an additional fee, are worth the time and money because they make certification easier and more approachable.

FAA Requirements

The FAA’s Knowledge Testing Center will administer an aeronautical knowledge test. The test covers topics such as:

  1. Rules and regulations governing drone flight
  2. The effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft
  3. Emergency procedures
  4. Radio communication
  5. The effects of drugs and alcohol on pilots
  6. Aeronautical decision-making and judgement calls
  7. Airport operations
  8. Proper maintenance
  9. Pre-flight inspections.

Once you pass the test, you’ll proceed through an online paperwork system to complete your registration. A paper certificate will be mailed to you, which you are required to have with you at all times while flying a drone.

Some states require you to be certified in order to fly at all. So you may already have gone through this process before you started flying your drone recreationally. If you haven’t yet gone through the certification process this is an important first step. If you’re serious about earning an income as a drone pilot do it first.  FAA certification is required for commercial-grade jobs across most industries. Even if you are just working on a freelance or contract basis certification is required.

Step Two: Level Up

Once you are certified, you’re ready to take your drone piloting to the next level. This is true of both your skills and your equipment. Honing your skills will come as a result of practice and hard work, while advanced drones will make your flights easier and more enjoyable.

If you’ve been flying for a couple of years, you probably already have the basics of flight down. But what other skills do successful drone operators have? They must be detail oriented, from safety checks to equipment maintenance, from contingency plans for bad weather to a game plan of how to set up a great camera shot. Business and interpersonal skills are also important to take flying from a hobby to a career.

Why is Customer Service So Important?

You’ll need to communicate clearly and kindly with clients and with the curious public. The public will no doubt have questions about what you’re doing as well. Be punctual and organized. Professional drone operators also must stay calm and collected during an emergency or malfunction. Examples include an unintended landing or crash. There is a certain amount of stress that comes with operating a delicate yet powerful piece of technology.  Expectations of clients magnify stress levels.

This can be true whether they are present on-site or not. Good commercial drone pilots are also inquisitive, passionate, and deeply engaged in the work. If you can show someone else what excites you about working with drones, then you’re well on your way to selling yourself and your services to potential clients.

Now it’s time to practice more advanced maneuvers and to learn the ins and outs of your drone’s more advanced features. Maybe you’re well-versed in these features. Maybe this is a good opportunity to study up on the full capability of the drone you’ve been working with. If you are working with a beginner drone, now may be the time to upgrade to a drone with advanced features.

Do You Need a High End Drone?

Some of these features include longer battery life for more extended flights, a larger range of travel, and enhanced safety features. Of course you’ll want a great tracking device too, just in case your drone gets lost in a crash. A built-in HD camera, altitude hold, and several extra drone batteries will make you look like a true professional when you’re out in the field. While it may be scary to spend money up front for a business venture you’re not sure will pay off, you may be able to justify an investment in a high end drone or other equipment by looking ahead to the range of work that advanced equipment will allow you to do.

Step Three: Figure Out Your Niche

This next step is one of the hardest, but also one of the most fun. You know you want to make money as a drone pilot, but how? Take time to consider all the different uses for drones: transportation, video footage, surveillance, etc. Which is most appealing to you? Maybe you have an eye for beautiful landscape shots, or maybe you’d like to focus on a smaller detail that can only be seen from above. Maybe you’re fascinated by the movement of goods and people. Identify your strong points as a drone pilot and find out where they intersect with your other interests. You can really get creative here– the biggest restriction is your imagination. Once you identify what your preferred niche might be, you’ll be well on your way to starting your career (or side job) as a drone pilot.

Which Industries Are Hiring?

There are so many varied industries that employ drones. Would you like to take aerial photographs for realtors® and other clients? How about travel agencies and vacation properties? Have you ever wanted to work in Hollywood? Many film and television productions include drone operators to capture chase scenes, city skylines, and much more. If you’re a skilled photographer, you could also consider taking your own shots and selling them for commercial or private use. Or maybe your interest is more practical than aesthetic.

Do you want to work with farmers to monitor their crops? Get involved with agricultural spraying? Would you like to work with an engineering firm that does aerial building inspection after disasters? How about environmental surveying? There’s also surveillance, maybe in a military or law enforcement context. What about home deliveries of packages? The practical applications of drones are only beginning to be discovered. Maybe you’ll even come up with a new way to use this unique technology to address a need you see in the world around you.

Step Four: Find Clients

Now that you know what you want to do, you need to find people who are willing to pay you to do it. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Unless you’ve jumped right in to drone piloting as your full-time job, odds are you are working on a freelance basis. This means you need to prospect for clients and shop yourself out.

Sometimes companies will find you, but more often than not, it’s up to you to find clients who can benefit from your particular skill set. Promoting yourself is as much of a job is the piloting itself. You may need to accept lower-paying gigs at first in order to receive references and build up your resume. That is fine and to be expected– once you are more established and have a portfolio of work to present to potential clients, you will be able to charge a higher rate.

Job Search 101

Most of the job-searching techniques you’re probably familiar with will serve you well when looking for clients. Scour local job postings and classified ads, or place an ad in your local newspaper or magazine. Print business cards and flyers, leaving them around town where you think your target audience might spend time. Develop a robust social media presence with samples of your work, a mission statement, and stay top-of-mind by sharing any relevant content to your industry. The best part of social media is that it’s very affordable.

The initial cost is only your own labor, and you can decide to promote posts to boost your visibility in small financial increments. Don’t be afraid to contact anyone in the industry you’ve identified interest in (local realtors®, farmers, law enforcement, engineering firms, etc) and anyone else who may need drone work. To find clients, sometimes thinking outside the box yields impressive results.

Step Five: Deliver Quality Products

Finally, now that you have some clients, go out there and deliver amazing results. Armed with your fantastic new equipment, shoot some excellent footage or use your drone to its highest and best capabilities. A quality product displays your strong business skills.  Show clients why your work is top-notch in the industry (and let it speak for itself).

Word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of advertisement. So doing a great job for your clients will likely result in more business coming your way. Remember, a quality product includes the whole experience:

Some experiences will be better or worse than others when you’re first starting out. Each project will be a learning experience and a chance to grow your business. Embrace the unique challenges of each one.

Wrap Up Drone Pilot Steps

A fruitful career– or even just a side gig– as a drone pilot is well within your grasp. With the proper licensing, equipment, business sense, and target audience, you too can put yourself on the path to success. Good luck and happy flying!

Hal Simmons

When I first started flying drones I was always afraid of damaging my drone. I would always be thinking what if. I questioned myself often and as a result it made me question various aspects of flying drones. In the process I learned a lot. This is why I feel I have a lot of information that will be helpful to beginners and intermediate drone enthusiasts. Of course I still have a lot to learn so join me on this journey and I am sure you will enjoy the adventure ahead of us.