How To Meet Market Expectations as a Commercial Drone Pilot

becoming a commercial drone pilot

To become a successful commercial drone pilot, focus on developing specialized skills in creative content or technical applications. Gain certifications like the FAA Part 107 license, build a diverse portfolio showcasing your expertise, and stay informed about the latest drone technologies. Align your services with industry demands and market yourself effectively through digital platforms and networking.

In the rapidly evolving world of drone technology, being a commercial drone pilot presents both exciting opportunities and unique challenges. Just as people are seeking drone pilots for tasks ranging from capturing stunning aerial photos of homes and businesses to performing advanced operations like precision LiDAR data collection and thermal imagery, I’ve realized that the key to success in this field lies in understanding and meeting these diverse market needs.

From my experience, here are a few critical aspects that aspiring commercial drone pilots need to consider:

  1. Mastering the Craft: The importance of specializing in either creative content or technical applications, and the unique skill sets required for each.
  2. Business Decisions: For those running a business, determining whether to develop in-house drone capabilities or to partner with commercial providers.
  3. Operational Insights: Insights into what it means to insource drone operations, balancing efficiency with expertise.
  4. Meeting Market Needs: Understanding the qualities and competencies that make a commercial drone pilot stand out when being sought out for hire.

As the role of commercial drone pilots continues to expand across various industries, I’m here to guide you on how to align your skills and services with what the market expects. Let’s dive into what it takes to be the commercial drone pilot that everyone wants to hire.

Choosing Your Drone Specialty: Creative vs. Technical Applications

Over the course of my career in the drone industry, I’ve come to understand the importance of specializing in an area that aligns with your personal and professional background. The choice between focusing on creative image and video or technical industrial applications isn’t necessarily as much preference; but leveraging your unique skills and experiences to excel in a specific niche can lend itself to quicker success.

Creative Content: A Blend of Art and Technology

From my experience in IT sales and my passion as a musician, I’ve learned that creative drone services, such as aerial photography, videography, and cinematography, require not just technical know-how but also an artistic eye. This is a realm where your background in visual arts, event photography, or any form of creative media can be a huge asset. It’s about capturing moments and telling stories from a new, aerial perspective. For those with a knack for visual storytelling, developing a portfolio that showcases smooth, cinematic drone footage, and adapting your style to various needs, like real estate or event photography, can set you apart in this field.

Technical Applications: Merging Industry Knowledge with Drone Expertise

On the other hand, technical drone applications call for a different set of skills. Here, my IT background has proven invaluable, especially in grasping the complexities of photogrammetry, thermal imaging, and LiDAR technology. Or maybe you come from a field like building inspection, surveying, or utility work, your industry knowledge can be a significant advantage. It’s about understanding the specific data collection needs of your industry – whether that’s creating detailed 3D models for construction projects, inspecting power lines, or assessing solar panel efficiency. Gaining certifications like DroneDeploy’s Pilot Certification or FLIR’s sUAS Thermography Certification can further validate your technical prowess.

Embracing Your Unique Path

The decision to focus on creative or technical drone work shouldn’t be taken lightly. Trying to master both can often dilute your effectiveness. Instead, assess your background and interests. As a professional with experience in IT and my passion for music, I have been able to leverage those elements to effectively position myself to offer both creative marketing content and handle technical applications. Everyone’s path will be different, but what’s essential is to play to your strengths and choose a direction that aligns with your skills and experiences.

Choose Your Path in Drone Operations: Own Your Business or Employment?

becoming a commercial drone pilotOne of the first decisions you should consider in drone career is choosing between the freedom and risks of operating your own business, or the stability and structure of employment. Both paths have distinct advantages and challenges, and the right choice largely depends on your personal preferences and career goals.

Freedom and Risks of Owning Your Business

As a business owner, I have the liberty to choose my projects and enjoy the flexibility of managing my schedule. This has been perfect for me because I have a natural entrepreneurial spirit and I’m comfortable with the uncertainties that come with managing my own business. The trade-off, however, includes the absence of a regular salary and benefits and the need to continuously market my services.

Employment Stability and Structure

On the other hand, being employed by a company provides a certain level of security, consistent income, and often, additional benefits. This path might be more appealing if you prefer a structured environment and steady work. It also provides opportunities to work on a variety of projects without the pressure of running your own business.

Balancing Drone Operations and Data Interpretation

Creative Content: DIY or Collaborate

For the ‘creative’ type drone services, like photography or videography, you have the option to handle the entire production process yourself or collaborate with others. Platforms like Upwork and Fiverr are excellent for finding freelancers who can complement your skills, especially in areas like post-processing or advanced editing.

Technical Applications: Using Specialized Platforms

For more technical drone operations, such as infrastructure inspection or photogrammetry, it’s crucial to decide how much you want to engage in both data collection and its interpretation. While I enjoy handling both aspects, not everyone may find this approach suitable. Platforms like Pix4D and Scopito offer solutions for processing and analyzing technical data, making it feasible for entry-level to the most advanced drone operators to provide valuable technical services. This approach can significantly expand your service offerings, even if you’re new to the field.

Assessing Your Interests and Skills

Ultimately, the decision on what aspects of drone work you provide, depends on your interests, skills, and how much you’re willing to learn. Whether it’s flying drones for creative projects or conducting technical inspections, understanding your strengths and how much you enjoy various aspects of the work will guide you in shaping your drone career.

Working as a Drone Pilot in a Company's Internal Drone Program

drone pilot solar fieldQualifying for a drone pilot position within a company’s internal drone program will come with a specific  set of expectations and requirements. Here’s what companies typically look for when considering a drone pilot for their team:

Pros and Cons of Working as an Employee

While working as an in-house drone pilot, you’ll enjoy several benefits, such as access to the latest technology, structured work hours, and the security of a steady income. The organization typically handles the complexities of legal compliance, equipment maintenance, and insurance, which can significantly reduce the administrative burden on you.

However, this path also comes with some trade-offs. Your autonomy might be limited compared to freelance work, as you’ll need to adhere to company policies and schedules. The creative freedom in your projects may also be governed by the organization’s objectives and style guidelines. It’s important to weigh these factors against your personal career goals and work preferences to determine if this environment is the right fit for you.

Essential Qualifications and Certifications

  • FAA Part 107 Certification: This is usually non-negotiable. Companies expect you to be certified and fully compliant with all aviation regulations.
  • Relevant Training: Additional certifications or training in specific areas, such as thermal imaging or photogrammetry, can be a significant plus, especially for technical roles.

Proven Experience and Skills

  • Practical Drone Flying Skills: Demonstrated ability to safely and efficiently operate various types of drones.
  • Technical Proficiency: For technical roles, a deep understanding of data collection and analysis methods may be required, but are always .
  • Portfolio of Work: A strong portfolio showcasing your drone work, be it creative content or technical surveys, can be a decisive factor.

Soft Skills and Attributes

  • Adaptability: The ability to adapt to different projects and working conditions is highly valued.
  • Team Collaboration: Being able to work well within a team, contributing to group projects and sharing insights.
  • Problem-Solving Abilities: The skill to troubleshoot issues on the fly and come up with effective solutions is essential.
  • Communication Skills: Clear and concise communication, both in reporting data and interacting with team members.

Understanding of Company Goals and Culture

  • Alignment with Company Objectives: Insight into how your role as a drone pilot supports the broader goals of the organization.
  • Cultural Fit: Companies often look for individuals who share their values and can seamlessly integrate into their corporate culture.

It is my observation that striking a reasonable balance between technical expertise and interpersonal skills is key to being a successful drone pilot in a corporate environment. Companies value pilots who not only excel in their technical role but also contribute positively to the team and the organization’s objectives.

How To Professionalize Operations for your Drone Startup BusinessClick in to my article “How To Professionalize Operations for your Drone Startup Business” for more insights to working government drone services business.

Operating as an Independent Commercial Drone Services Provider

drone pilot powerline inspectionAs an independent drone pilot or DSP (Drone Service Provider), you’ll find a landscape filled with unique opportunities and challenges, quite distinct from being an employee within an organization.

Establishing Yourself as a DSP

Taking the path of a DSP offers a significant degree of control and direct engagement with clients:

  • Complete Service Control: You have full authority over every aspect of your services, from client interactions to project execution.
  • Stronger Client Relationships: Direct dealings often lead to deeper client understanding and potentially more meaningful, long-term collaborations.
  • Business Autonomy: Decide your own service offerings, pricing, and operational strategies.

However, this path also brings its own set of responsibilities:

  • Business Management: You’re in charge of marketing, compliance, legalities, and customer acquisition.
  • Resource Oversight: Managing equipment, software, and maintenance falls entirely on your shoulders.

Diversify Your Business with Drone Pilot Networks

As a startup DSP, leveraging drone pilot networks can supplement your direct client efforts. 

  • Supplementary Income: A steady stream of jobs, valuable in your business’s early stages.
  • Diverse Experience: Exposure to a wide range of projects, enhancing your skills and broadening your portfolio.

As a startup DSP, I have taken opportunity with different drone pilot networks as a valuable source for diverse income streams. Platforms like Zeitview, formerly DroneBase, available to the public, enable easy drone job access; clients post requests, and drone pilots can quickly respond. I also enjoyed my experience with Houselens, focusing on real estate photography, involved receiving direct job assignments to go out and fly jobs. I have also enjoyed working with Fairfleet, which operates similarly to DroneBase providing end-to-end drone projects, including data analytics and reporting. These platforms proved instrumental for me, especially as a startup DSP, allowing me to supplement my direct client work with a variety of tasks and grow my business effectively.

Balancing network jobs with direct client work involves:

  • Building Your Brand: Direct engagements allow for deeper relationship building and brand establishment.
  • Control Over Projects: While networks offer convenience, direct projects give you more control over execution and management.

Maintain a Balanced Outlook on Your Business

While these networks offer quick job opportunities and varied experience, focusing on building direct client relationships can lead to more rewarding and substantial projects. Striking a balance between network jobs and targeted client acquisition is key to a thriving DSP business.

To meet the market expectation of a Commercial Drone Pilot, it’s essential for us to be proactive in understanding the full context of each client assignment. My experiences have taught me that misunderstandings in the scope of a given project can sometimes lead to critical information getting lost. This is why it’s crucial to ensure we’re fully informed about the purpose and intended use of the imagery or data we are collecting. Without this understanding, achieving the best possible outcome for the client can be challenging. As drone pilots striving to meet market expectations, it’s our responsibility to seek clarity and comprehensive understanding of each project to deliver work that truly aligns with client needs and maintains the highest standards of quality.

Remember, succeeding as a commercial drone pilot in today’s market requires professionalism, skill proficiency, and staying abreast of industry developments, regardless of your operational model.

Conclusion: Achieving Success as a Commercial Drone Pilot

man thinking conclusionSuccess in the commercial drone industry hinges on understanding market demands, honing specialized skills, and making informed career choices. Whether you’re flying solo or part of a team, clear communication and a deep understanding of each project are crucial. Keep evolving with the industry, and maintain a balance between creativity, technical prowess, and business acumen. Remember, your growth as a drone pilot is shaped by your adaptability, professionalism, and commitment to excellence.

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