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Updated Feb 14, 2024

How to Become a Commercial Drone Pilot

Interested in drone technology? To get started, you'll need a pilot's license and insurance.

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Sean Peek, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
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As the gig economy continues to grow around the world, new professions have arisen to meet the changing technological and economic demands of multiple industries. One such job is a commercial drone pilot.

Companies across myriad industries are investing in drones and drone services, thereby adding new related jobs, like drone piloting. For prospective drone pilots who are enterprising enough to leap into this novel occupation, work that is both thrilling and profitable awaits.

What does a commercial drone pilot do?

At the most basic level, commercial drone pilots fly drones for companies in a range of industries for various purposes. Some businesses use drones to take aerial photos and videos for marketing purposes, while other companies use drones for aerial surveillance. Commercial drone pilots execute a range of drone activities for different businesses.

Our research found that most companies hire drone pilots for freelance jobs. Many businesses don’t employ full-time drone pilots but rather use contractors to fly drones for specific projects. For pilots, this can require a significant amount of travel to work sites, but the compensation may be a worthwhile incentive.

What’s the difference between a drone, a UAV and a UAS?

“UAV” stands for “unmanned aerial vehicle.” Another common term used in the aerial industry is “UAS,” which is an acronym for “unmanned aircraft system.” You may see different terminology depending on the source. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) frequently uses “UAV” to refer to drones. Most mainstream media outlets, on the other hand, use “drones” because that word is better known to the average reader. For the most part, those two terms are used interchangeably.

UAS, on the other hand, refers to more than just the aircraft. A UAS includes the whole system, including steering and the pilot, so the UAV is a part of the UAS.

If you want to get technical, UAVs are more advanced versions of drones. A $100 drone for recreational purposes won’t be called a UAV, but an expensive UAV can be considered a drone. 

Steps to become a commercial drone pilot

If you want to become a commercial drone pilot, there are specific actions you’ll need to take.

1.mGet a drone license.

The first step in becoming a drone pilot is to obtain a drone license. Selling photos taken with a drone without a license could result in a $1,100 fine from the FAA. The government mandates that anyone who flies a drone for a commercial, non-recreational or governmental purpose have a special license to do so. This license is called a Part 107, named after the rule that governs it.

Understanding drone licensing requirements

To get a drone license, you have to submit the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) and then register online for a written test, which costs $175 and can be taken at an FAA-approved location. These are often local flying clubs or airports. The test involves 60 multiple-choice questions that cover setting up, operating and safely using a drone. You must answer 70 percent of the questions correctly to pass.

Taking the test

Applicants must be at least 16 years old and have a government-issued picture ID. Additional requirements from the FAA include being able to speak, read, write and understand English, as well as being in the physical and mental condition necessary to complete a drone flight. Depending on your location, you may be placed on a waiting list for a few weeks before taking the test. There are about 700 testing locations in the United States.

To give you an idea of the test’s difficulty level, here’s a sample question from the FAA: Which technique should a remote pilot use to scan for traffic? A remote pilot should:

  1. systematically focus on different segments of the sky for short intervals.
  2. concentrate on relative movement detected in the peripheral vision area.
  3. continuously scan the sky from right to left.

Taking practice tests is a good way to increase your knowledge and feel more comfortable when the actual test rolls around. The FAA offers an online study guide. If that’s not enough, you can check out websites that can teach you the rules and regulations of flying a drone, such as Remote Pilot 101 and Gold Seal’s UAV Ground School. The latter even offers to cover the fee for your test if you don’t pass. 

Applying for your official license

After you take the test, your score will be uploaded in 48 hours. Then, you can apply for your Remote Pilot Certificate. You must pass a background check from the Transportation Security Administration before you can be issued a certificate.

After you complete those tasks and pass the background check, you will receive an email notification. Your remote pilot certificate will be mailed to you. You’ll need to keep your certificate with you when flying your drone.

2. Purchase drone insurance.

Once you’re licensed, the next thing you’ll need is professional drone insurance. Don’t assume your home, personal or professional insurance will cover this activity. On the contrary, most modern policies exclude drones from coverage. Instead, get a professional drone insurance policy from a company such as AIG or Avion that offers sufficient coverage for accidents. This should include coverage for your equipment, the cameras you attach to your drone, and enough protection in the event your drone crashes into something or somebody (which is probably inevitable).

FYIDid you know
If you find that your homeowners insurance does include drone coverage, the policy might cover only recreational drone use. If you’re planning to use your drone for commercial purposes, you’ll need separate drone insurance that covers your drone when in use for business.

3. Pick a drone.

Now with proper licensing and insurance taken care of, you’ll need to obtain the drone itself. If you’re shooting video for a client, they’ll likely want professional-looking footage that has sharp detail and bright, clean color. Although you might be able to get away with a cheap drone like the $559 DJI Mavic Air 2, you would be better off investing in a larger, more flexible drone like the DJI Mavic 3 Pro. This drone will allow you to shoot the same smooth 4K video you see on nature documentaries. It isn’t cheap, though; it will cost you about $2,200.

Whichever drone you decide on, register it with the FAA. The FAA requires anyone who flies a UAS or drone that weighs 0.55 pound or more to register their device. Registration costs $5, and you must renew it every three years.

4. Start flying.

With the license, insurance and drone obtained, you’re ready to take to the skies. However, you’ll need to abide by certain rules when operating as a commercial drone pilot. According to the FAA, the following rules require a waiver.

drone pilot regulation chart

Source: FAA.gov

Before you start flying, ensure that you either follow all of the Part 107 rules or that you receive a waiver for the above specifications. 

Don’t shy away from continued hands-on training as well, as you’re unlikely to land many high-paying projects without proving you have more than the basic knowledge required to pass the drone license test. A quick Google search should yield dozens of potential in-person training options. It’s worth spending the money to learn how to fly your drone properly rather than trying to become a commercial drone pilot without hands-on training.

Upon following the rules and completing training, you should feel comfortable flying your drone commercially. The more experience you get once you start flying and completing commercial projects, the more money you’ll be able to charge for your services.

How much money does a commercial drone pilot make?

The salary for drone pilots varies, especially since many pilots work as freelancers. The hourly rate also varies by project and industry. [Read related article: Salary vs. Hourly — What’s Better for Your Business?]

Glassdoor lists the annual salary of drone pilots as $95,000. However, according to DroneU, rates can be between $120 and $500 per hour for the highest earners. There is no standard for how much a drone pilot can make, but there is the potential to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Achieving that goal means taking on a significant number of projects, of course.

TipTip
Our guide to self-employment has everything you need to know about working for yourself, including the financial considerations.

Cool business uses for commercial drones

Businesses typically use drones largely in video and photography, especially as part of marketing plans, but there are many other applications of UAV technology that might surprise you, like agriculture and emergency services.

Here’s how some pilots are already using drones and how they might be used in the future.

  • Agriculture: Farmers can benefit from drones in several ways. Many in the UAV industry cite agriculture as an enormous area of opportunity for drone technology. Not only can drones save farmers money by helping them identify failing plants early and take inventory of crops, but the machines can also be used to map and study the farmland and its irrigation systems.
  • Architecture and construction: Architectural firms and construction contractors are also benefiting from drones. Architects can use footage of a property to create 3D renderings of the structures they intend to build.
  • Delivery: Drone-based delivery services constitute one of the most obvious applications. While still restricted to a low maximum load-bearing weight, delivery by drone is a promising application.
  • Emergency services: Utilizing drones for emergency response services, particularly for medical needs, presents new opportunities for lifesaving measures. Using drones to get eyes on a difficult situation or to deliver medical supplies to stranded victims could enhance the ability of emergency response physicians to offer care in difficult situations.
  • Engineering: Engineering firms are using drones in projects involving oil pipelines, transmission cables and maintenance inspections.
  • Environmental monitoring and conservation: Much like how farmers use drones to monitor crops and animals, drone technology can keep tabs on ecosystems. UAVs are discreet and can monitor animal populations without disturbing them. This type of monitoring offers important insight into conservation efforts, migration tracking, habitat management and flood assessment, which is particularly useful on the coasts.
  • Media: Another obvious use of drones is for media coverage. Previously, aerial shots were available only to large news corporations that could afford a news helicopter. Now, local journalists and small-scale media outlets can easily capture aerial footage for news coverage.
  • Training: New technologies require education and training. Companies such as DARTdrones not only train people on how to fly UAVs but also educate them about FAA regulations and specific use cases.
  • Online drone courses: For drone pilots with a wealth of experience behind the controller, producing online courses for those interested in drone piloting could be an inexpensive and high-revenue business strategy. Experienced drone pilots can build a curriculum based on a topic, particular industry or level of expertise while generating a steady passive income.
  • Drone rental services: If you’re a drone pilot with a top-of-the-line drone or collection of drones, consider renting your drone to pilots, companies or other interested parties. Peer-to-peer marketplaces, like Fat Llama, provide a forum for drone rental businesses.
  • Insurance claim processing: Commercial drones can be used for insurance claim assessments. The crux of this business model lies in the relationships drone pilots forge with local insurance companies and adjusters. Strong business partnerships between drone pilots and insurance professionals can expedite photographic damage assessments and draft reports in record time, allowing adjusters to turn their attention to those who have suffered from loss or damaged personal property while the drone pilot collects the evidence.

Finding success in the skies

It’s a good time to become a commercial drone pilot. The field can be lucrative, but it takes some money to purchase the equipment, training courses and insurance necessary to be a licensed pilot. If you want to become a commercial drone pilot, you have to be committed to the startup costs, but then the opportunities for income are yours for the taking. Combining your technical proficiency with your love for aerial exploration can make the journey toward excelling in this job highly rewarding.

Shayna Waltower and Bennett Conlin contributed to this article.

author image
Sean Peek, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
Sean Peek is the co-founder of a self-funded small business that employs more than a dozen team members. His years of hands-on entrepreneurial experience in bootstrapping, operations management, process automation and leadership have strengthened his knowledge of the B2B world and the most pressing issues facing business owners today. Peek uses his expertise to guide fellow small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs in the areas of marketing, finance and software technology. Peek excels at developing customer bases and fostering long-term client relationships, using lean principles to drive efficiency and cost-saving, and identifying growth areas. He has demonstrated his business savvy through collaborations with Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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