What can I expect my income to be as a drone pilot?
The annual median salary for drone pilots is published to be approximately $80,000. However, the reality is that drone pilot salaries can vary greatly depending on the organization, the job and the skillset of the pilot. Military and government positions offer an average salary between $30,000 and $40,000 annually. Self-employed or freelance pilots can enjoy an unlimited earning capacity.
If you’re just getting your drone startup going and learning about the drone industry, it can be really complicated to understand all the different drone services and what each service is capable of earning.
Let’s begin with understanding what kind of drone services pilots are hired to do.
Before we can talk about the earning potential for drone pilots, we need to first think about some of the dynamics involved in determining the value of a drone pilot.
Accomplishing our Part 107 certification is really just getting our foot in the door of the drone business so to speak. To be fair, I know pilots who gained a lot of experience flying prior to getting their Part 107. And this is actually possible, so long as they are working under the immediate supervision of a certified pilot. But for me personally, I did not have any real professional experience at the point when I acquired my Part 107.
The primary distinctions in determining the salary potential of a pilot is going to be industry knowledge, flying experience and expertise. For example, if your experience is limited to flying as a hobbyist, you may not have had a chance to develop some of the disciplines needed to be effective in a commercial drone operation.
The actual income we can earn will vary on 2 or 3 scenarios, for example:
- the particular job (or service),
- the company (employer) and the industry we are working in
- and there can also be a difference in wage depending on whether we are working for ourselves or another company.
Keep in mind that working as a certified professional drone pilot is still a relatively new industry that makes collecting any historic and accurate salary data is not yet well-defined. For me personally, operating as a freelance under my own brand, I was able to set my pricing where I felt most comfortable. Starting out with my drone and a few accessories, I really had a low cost of operations; essentially gas to drive to the site. This meant that any money earned went right into my pocket as my salary.
However, I knew that to sustain the business, I would need to invest in equipment, such as adding and replacing batteries, props, and eventually buying a 2nd drone and re-purposing my first drone as a spare.
As a side-note, the way I established my pricing in the beginning was a simple formula based on what I thought my time was worth. I came up with an hourly rate and a day rate, and would estimate how long I thought a project would take. The factors include travel time to and from the site, the length of time for the flight, and the image processing (photo and video editing) all the way to completion, uploading the data and invoicing the client.
In the first year or so, the salary that I came to expect ended up being right in line with the numbers I mention at the top of this article. Over the course of a few months, starting at zero, it wasn’t long before I began seeing the reality and potential of earning a sustainable income.
To provide some substance to these theories, I will give you an example of a Real Estate project, I took the following factors into consideration:
- the location (travel time and other expenses)
- the client requirements
- the size of the property
- estimated time onsite
- estimated time processing the photo and video
After about the first year, my typical real estate package averaged out at about $500 to the client, then less expenses, travel and insurance, I was usually able to pay myself about $400 per job, and I can usually complete 2 real estate jobs in 1 day.
So, based on this one scenario and doing some simple math, the potential annual income might be $200,000 per year. However, while that is possible, it will require tremendous focus, great marketing, the willingness to work hard, and a consistent and excellent service delivery.
How Drones are being used, and what Drone Pilots are hired to do
In today’s market, the use of drones have already made a mark across a span of industries providing innovation, improving efficiencies, safety as well as profit margins. You may be aware of some of these, but below are a few examples:
|-Search and Rescue||-Public safety||-Transportation||-Deliveries|
|-Mining||-Natural Disaster Response|
|-Crime Scene Mapping||-Insurance (claims adjusting)|
|-Infrastructure Inspections (Pipeline, Bridges, Railroads, Utility towers)|
|-Construction (site progress monitoring) -Stockpile Measurement|
Drone pilots are being hired and/or contracted to perform in very specialized types of work. Some of the top and most common functions are real estate and marketing, inspection and progress site monitoring, infrastructure inspections, search and rescue, deliveries, and so on. The opportunities for a drone pilot are vast and cover a wide spectrum of services.
How To Present Yourself as a Drone Pilot in the Market
As I have eluded to in earlier sections of this article, there are 2 main employment categories to consider.
- Self-Employed, freelance aerial photo/videography
- Working as an employee for an organization or company
Many drone pilots, especially those who started out buying their first Mavic or Phantom drone, will commonly start thinking about offering freelance photo and video services. And once we get serious about the profession, we then go about acquiring our FAA or Civil Aviation UAV (drone) pilot certifications. This is where things will begin to open up for us as professional drone pilots.
At this stage, we can make the decision to operate under the category of self-employed or freelance, and seek out client work. Or, we can look for drone positions, working for other companies.
There are some things to consider as you begin to build your drone services business, and by the way, these come from personal experience. For example, liability insurance. You do not want to get out on a project and damage a clients property without insurance coverage. Thankfully, there are easy ways to acquire affordable insurance, but again, this is an important component that you do not need to overlook.
Owning your own business can be fulfilling and satisfying, but it does not come easy. We have to be aggressive and go out and get the business, make sure we are equipped to perform the services, and deliver an excellent product. Done right, the sky is the limit, (pun intended) in terms of income potential.
Employed or Working for another company
Many companies, across a lot of different industry verticals, are building out their own internal drone programs, hiring certified pilots to perform their own drone works. Law enforcement, emergency response as well as construction, power or utility infrastructure companies are some examples of industries that are employing internal drone flight teams. Additionally, Drone Service Providers make great employment opportunities and are a good way to learn and grow your skills across a wide spectrum of practices. These employment scenarios are perfect for those individuals who are not interested in shouldering the responsibilities that come with owning and operating a business, but prefer the structure of working for a company and earning a regular salary.
How To Market Yourself, or Your Business
So far, we have discussed the different services that are performed by drones, the types of employment and the potential for earnings as a drone pilot. So how do we go about finding work?
I have found it astonishing the sheer number of opportunities in the market. Whether you are contracting through companies like Dronebase, or other companies that offer drone-on-demand type services. Or perhaps, you are partnered with a commercial photography company that contracts or hires drone pilots, or calling on real estate agencies, it’s really up to us as individuals to get out and get work.
In my personal experience early on, I found quick success by hustling in my local market. For starters, I built a website and joined the local Chamber of Commerce and began networking with other Chamber members. I also began stopping by real estate agencies and dropping off my business card. I will mention here that I did not have to spend a lot of money to get things going. The website cost about $200, business cards were about $15 and the Chamber of Commerce membership fee was about $200 for the first year. You do not have to do all of these, but it was what I could manage to invest at the time, and I recovered the investment within the first month.
Be willing to do some work for free. You will need a portfolio once you begin getting calls and invitations to quote work. Working for free is wonderful in that it allows us the chance to practice. Not only the flying, but the entire operation. I quickly learned what to do and what NOT to do. I learned what gear I needed to have on the job. I learned how long a job takes from the flight operation, to the processing of the photo and video, to delivery to the client. This not only gives us materials for presentation, but it also builds our confidence in performing the work.
As for seeking employment, I firmly believe in starting out as a freelancer in the beginning to establish some skills. And then, once you have some experience under the belt, there are many ways to look for employment opportunities. Aside from the most popular online “job boards” like indeed.com, I have found there to be a lot of employment listings on LinkedIn. You can also post on freelance websites such as Upwork and Fiverr.
My Thoughts and Conclusion
In my articles, I usually try to keep to objective guidance, avoiding too much impartation of my personal philosophy on my readers, but if you are still reading, I would like to share my heart on this topic. I believe that hard work and a positive attitude will make up for any lack of knowledge and experience starting out. Looking back to when I first established my drone startup, I honestly didn’t have a clue. But I can tell you this, even on the worst days, I have had the best time of my working career building my drone business. No matter what profession we choose, if we work hard, give our best and do it all with a smile, our attitude and natural skills will go before us and carve out our paths to success.
How To Get Your FAA Part 107 Pilot Certification
If you are serious about making money with your drone, whether it be Real Estate, Aerial Inspections, etc., then you will need, from the FAA a 14 CFR Part 107 certification.
The best source for your training can be found by clicking on RemotePilot101. Jason Schappert is a pilot and author of 8 best-selling aviation flight training books. While studying and taking tests is not the most fun, Jason breaks it down into 10 easy to follow (at your own pace) video lessons. These lessons are straight and to the point giving you the exact knowledge, nothing less, nothing more than what you need to pass the exam. Additionally, he is continually updating the training to keep it relevant to any changes to FAA regulations. This membership is a 1-time subscription – for life! So when you’re 24 month renewal comes around, just sign in to RemotePilot101 and refresh your training.
Just remember, if you are flying commercially, you will need your Part 107 certification. It’s not hard, you can do it!