Over recent years drone technology has advanced at break-neck speed, as have the number of commercial opportunities for professional drone pilots.
In this article, I’m going to cover exactly what a drone pilot does, examine the various applications for drones and the industries a drone pilot can find employment in. I’ll also look at the qualifications and skill requirements you will need to succeed in this field.
Drone Pilot Job Description
Drone pilots are responsible for the remote flying of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones. This involves planning safe flight paths to collect images and data, with a successful take-off and landing.
Drone Pilot Employment Opportunities
Professional drone pilots are employed across many different sectors, working for private companies, government institutions, the military, and all sorts of other businesses.
Commercial Uses and Applications for Drones
- Real estate: Aerial photography and video of properties and land for sale are becoming an increasingly used tool in the real estate sector.
- Surveying: Surveyors can gather a ton of useful information for maps and new projects by using a drone.
- Military: The USAF is employing an ever-increasing number of drone pilots for their fleet of UAVs. Applications include reconnaissance and weapons deployment.
- Construction: From safety checks to helping create aerial footage for new projects, the building trade is a growing sector for drone pilots.
- Entertainment: Whether it be gathering footage of live concerts or sporting events, movie scenes, or music videos, opportunities are plentiful in this sector.
- Advertising/marketing: Think how many advertising campaigns make use of drone footage to help sell their products. This was often prohibitively expensive before drones came along.
- Safety inspections: Rather than risk sending in human inspectors, drones can be flown into areas of potential danger. For example, drones can be equipped with thermal imaging cameras or other sensitive monitoring technology. This can be a huge help to safety professionals.
The Skills Needed
Photography and Videography
Knowing how to best use your drone’s camera for photos and video is vital as this will be a large part of a drone pilot’s work. Familiarity with the basics of exposure times, the influence of light, shutter, and aperture settings can set you apart from other pilots.
A good understanding of cinematography, color, and frame composition will enable you to shoot the kind of aerial footage that your clients will pay top dollar for.
Aerial photography can be greatly affected by the weather. You’ll need to have a good understanding of weather forecasts, including the ability to read cloud formations, air pressure readings, and isobars. The final quality of your shoot can be drastically affected by these factors.
Think like an airman
As the industry develops, it’s more important than ever to demonstrate the kind of good judgment required from normal pilots. Yes, a drone is a fraction of the size, but if you are operating near restricted flight areas, you will have to report your flight path to air traffic control.
Good situational awareness will aid in spotting any potential dangers or incidents before they happen. Pylons, tall trees, or even nearby no-fly zones such as schools or prisons all need to be identified and noted before a flight takes place.
Qualifications A Commercial Drone Pilot Needs
Once you’ve got to grips with basic drone flying skills, you’ll need to master the advanced flight skills needed to become a professional drone pilot. This involves learning every aspect of your drone’s control system and flight settings, so it becomes second nature to you. Some pilots can manage this by themselves, and others opt for training courses.
Believe it or not, there are actually college programs focusing on drone piloting these days, but this isn’t necessarily the cheapest or the most time-efficient way of becoming a drone pilot.
There are hundreds of online training courses regarding all aspects of the industry, from the most basic flight training to more advanced skills such as cinematography and surveying. There is quite a range in the quality of course on offer, so you’ll need to do your research to separate the good from the bad.
Find your area of expertise…
Training courses will not only enable you to perfect your flight skills but can also help narrow down the area of expertise that you want to focus on, whether that be photography, mapping, or inspections. The right training course can give you the necessary experience and confidence to enter any sector as a confident and knowledgeable drone pilot.
Commercial Drone Pilot’s License
If you want to earn money as a drone pilot, you will have to obtain a drone pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) if you live in the United States. Other countries will have their own agencies, and the process will be different depending on where you’re based.
In the US, it’s not particularly hard to obtain your license. To do this, you have to pass an Aeronautical Knowledge Test, also known as the Part 107 test. This consists of 60 multiple choice questions that you have to answer in person at one of the FAA testing sites around the country.
Know your terminology…
There are specific training courses you can do to help you pass the test and get to grips with the terminology used. The FAA also provides free material and practice tests for anyone that wants them. Once you’ve successfully passed the test, you can apply for your license online from the FAA. After one or two weeks, you’ll receive temporary certification, followed by your permanent license after six to eight weeks.
Requirements to become a Commercial Drone Pilot
Once fully FAA qualified, you’ll need to follow these requirements to become a commercial drone pilot:
- Drone registration: Your drone may already be registered for recreational use, but to use it commercially, you’ll have to re-register. This registration has to be renewed every 36 months, and carry your registration card with you whenever you fly.
- Renewal of your drone pilot’s license has to be done every 24 months. All that’s required is to re-take the Aeronautical Knowledge Test. Annoyingly, this too has to be done in person at an FAA testing site.
- If requested by the FAA, you must present your drone and documentation for inspection.
- In the event of an accident that causes over $500 worth of damage, you must report the incident to the FAA within ten days.
- Keep a maintenance and inspection logbook to show your drone is in good operational condition.
Once you’ve obtained your commercial drone pilot’s license, it’s time to start thinking about your area of specialization. Unless you focus on a particular area of expertise, even if your flight skills are top-notch, you will be placing a limit on how much you can potentially earn. Let’s look at a couple of examples of specific training that will enable you to raise your income ceiling.
Mapping and Surveying
Drones can be extremely useful in this department. Multiple industries, including mining, construction, and surveying, require the creation of detailed aerial maps. Flight skills are not always the most important aspect in this area, as more often than not, your drone will be flying on a pre-programmed flight path.
The important skills you’ll need to have are developing the maps themselves. For this, you’ll have to know how to take the flight imagery collected and turn it into a digital map or 3D model using mapping software.
Buy a program online…
There are a number of different programs that you can buy. You’ll have to learn whichever you choose inside out, to be able to produce the kind of quality product your clients expect. Companies like Pix4D offer online aerial mapping and modeling courses that provide useful certification if you want to build a career as a drone mapper.
Educating yourself in the use of NDVI imaging cameras and the associated software is another great way of raising your earning potential as a drone pilot. These cameras are multispectral imaging sensors, and they are used to sense light wavelengths that are not visible to the human eye.
This data can be used to obtain vital information regarding crop health, for example, how much infrared light different parts of a field are receiving.
Certain skills are key…
Learning how to read and interpret the data from NVDI cameras along with mapping software will instantly qualify you for a career as an agricultural drone pilot. One of the leading companies in this field is Senterra which provides training and software solutions that would be a great asset to any aspiring drone pilot.
Expected Earnings As A Drone Pilot
Earning as a professional drone pilot can vary widely, depending largely on which field you are working in. Most professional drone pilots are freelancers, so their potential earnings can vary a lot depending on how much work they pick up or how motivated they are in the first place.
But, if you manage to get full-time work, most professional drone pilots can earn between $50,000 to $80,000 per year, based on your level of experience, reputation, and expertise. If you are willing to go the extra mile and get certification in fields like industrial inspection, then a skilled drone pilot can raise their potential earnings nearer to the $200,000 per year level.
Let’s Help You Get Your License!
What an exciting adventure! These helpful study guides will help you ace those exams with the Drone FAA 107 License Study Guide: A Practical Guide to Acing the Commercial Drone Pilot Test at First Sitting, and the Drone FAA 107 License Practice Test Questions and Answers: 200+ Practice Questions & Answers to Pass Your Drone Part 107 License Test in One Attempt, to begin with.
Furthermore, we also found the DRONE FAA PART 107 License Study Guide: An illustrated, Practical Guide with Practice Test Questions & Answers to ace your 107 Test at First Sitting and Obtain Your License, and the Remote Drone Pilot Certification Study Guide: Your Key to Earning Part 107 Remote Pilot Certification all available online in 2023.
For the remote pilot of all areas, we recommend the Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement for Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, Remote (Drone) Pilot, and Private Pilot FAA-CT-8080-2H: Flight Training Study & Test Prep Guide and the Remote Pilot – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Airman Certification Standards FAA-S-ACS-10B: (Practical Study & Test Prep Guide) to help get you up in the air!
Finally, how about this amazing all-in-one Drone Pilot Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pass the Part 107 Exam and Fly Drones Commercially, also available online today.
You need to be willing to put the hours in. Not only developing your flight skills but acquiring the qualifications and certificates to enhance your potential salary. A full-time career as a professional drone pilot isn’t just a dream.
You’ll also be entering a fledgling industry with good development prospects; that’s got a long way to go before it reaches full maturity. Now is the time to turn your hobby into a full-time career.
Good luck, and enjoy taking to the skies!