Drone pilots are in demand. In fact, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, projected more than 100,000 new jobs will be created in unmanned aircraft by the year 2025. And analysts at PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that the global market for commercial use of drones could reach $127 million by 2020. That's because more professionals, like realtors, security firms, advertising agencies, architects, construction firms and developers looking for aerial video to do business.
If you want to get in on this groundswell and become a commercial drone pilot, you will need three things:
- A Drone Pilot License
- Professional Drone Insurance
- A Drone
The first thing you will need is a license. Selling drone photos without a license could earn you a $1,100 fine from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The government has mandated that anyone who flies a drone for a commercial, non-recreational or governmental purpose needs to have a special license to do so. This license is called a Part 107, after the rule that governs it.
To get this license, you have to register with the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (ICARA), then register online for the written test, which costs $150 and can be taken at an FAA approved location. These are often local flying clubs or airports. This test involves 60-plus multiple-choice questions that cover setting up, operating and safely using a drone. You need to answer 70 percent correct to pass.
Applicants must be at least 16 years old and have a government-issued picture ID. Note: It may take a couple of weeks, depending on your location, while you sit on a waiting list. There are about 700 locations in the United States.
To give you some idea of the test's difficulty level, here's a sample question:
A stall occurs when the smooth airflow over the unmanned airplane's wing is disrupted and the lift degenerates rapidly. This is caused when the wing:
A) exceeds the maximum speed.
B) exceeds maximum allowable operating weight.
C) exceeds its critical angle of attack.
You don't have to go into this test cold, though. The FAA offers a free two-hour training course that you must preregister for and an online study guide. If that's not enough, there are plenty of sites that can help teach you the rules and regulations of flying a drone, such as RemotePilot101 and UAVGroundSchool. The latter of these offers to pay the fee for your Rule 107 test if you don't pass.
After the test, your score will be uploaded in 48 hours. Then you can apply for your Remote Pilot Certificate. The TSA will run a background check on you before you can print out a certificate.
The next thing you will need is professional drone insurance. Don't assume that your home, personal or professional insurance will cover this. Most modern policies exclude drones from their coverage. Instead, you should look into getting a professional drone insurance policy from a company such as AIG or Agion that offers sufficient coverage for any accidents. This should include coverage for your equipment, the cameras that you attach to your drone and enough coverage to protect you if your drone crashes into something or somebody (something that's probably inevitable).
One interesting and usually lower cost option is called Verifly. This offers policies that you can buy on the spot that offer up to $10 million in coverage. There's even an app that allows you to buy on location for a fixed amount of time.
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Pick a Drone
Finally, you'll need the drone itself. If you are shooting video for a client, they are going to want professional-looking video that has sharp detail and bright, clean color. Although you might be able to get away with a cheap drone like the $799 Mavic Air, you would be better placed to look at investing in a larger, more flexible drone, like the DJI Inspire Two, combined with a camera like the Zenmuse X5. This combination will allow you to shoot the same beautiful, smooth 4K video that you see on nature documentaries. It isn't cheap, though: this combination will cost you about $5,000.
Whichever drone you decide on, you'll need to register it. The FAA requires anyone who flies an unmanned aerial system (UAS) or drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds be registered. It will cost you $5, and you must renew it every three years.
If you pick a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds, you're going to need a 333 exemption, which are hard to get and generally require a real, full-on pilot's license.
There are a few rules you'll need to abide by as a commercial drone pilot. For instance, unless you get a 107 waiver, you can't fly a drone at night, over people, higher than 400 feet or further away than you can see with the naked eye. Also, avoid any place within five miles of an airport.
Assuming you follow all these, you could be quickly on your way to making legal money flying a drone. Now you'll just need to practice your skills.