So part of my self-improvement plan is to start writing again (with How to be a successful commercial drone pilot – Part 107 as my first article on DroneXL), sometimes just for myself and sometime to share. I saw yet another post from a brand new pilot looking to jump ship from a job they are unhappy with right into starting a drone business. I wish them luck obviously, but it inspired me to write this. I know most here know this already, but it looks like we have an increasing number of new pilots here, too. It's completely unedited and came out much more negative than I meant it to sound. I wasn't going to share it, but then I thought it might be more helpful than discouraging so here it goes:
Becoming an independent commercial drone pilot
Becoming an independent commercial drone pilot is an increasingly uphill battle. Tighter regulations, market saturation, increasing costs of hardware, software, and insurance are all making it much harder for new and aspiring pilots to get started. It's a lot of hard work and many who are looking to exchange their old boring job for new drone business are not going to succeed.
The fact is, the need for drone services is growing.
The problem, however, is that newcomers have unrealistic expectations about what's needed to become successful. Getting your Part 107 Certificate and buying a prosumer drone is not enough. It's not dissimilar from getting a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) and a used box truck and wanting to compete with established drivers and transportation companies. In both cases you can definitely make some money if you hustle but the odds are stacked against you.
How you CAN be successful
Still with me? Good. If that didn't scare you off, I'd like to share my thoughts on how you CAN be successful.
- The most important thing to realize a drone is just a tool. You can buy a hammer and get really proficient with hammering, but without knowing how to use other tools your usefulness is limited. Same with a drone. It has to be married with other skills, such as photography, videography, real estate, construction (inspection, roofing, etc.), mapping (surveying, GIS), and so on. When you look at successful Drone Service Providers, they are not just an expert commercial drone pilot — they are experts at what they are using the tool for: Experience, training, and/or certification in your target market is a must.
- Market research is critical. Don't just assume that because you live in a sprawling suburban area there will be a lot of real estate jobs, or because you are in the country there will be a lot of AG jobs. You need to research what markets are hot and how much competition there is in order to determine the right markets to concentrate on and the right tools to buy.
- While you can offer some services utilizing just experience and ability, there are other areas where proper training, certification, or licensing is either extremely important or even necessary by law.
- For example, offering photogrammetry and mapping services might get you in very real trouble if you don't have a surveyor's license or working with a licensed surveyor. Federal law limits what services you can offer, and individual state laws can even be more restrictive. In many cases it's illegal to offer maps with property lines, contour lines, and measurements, even with disclaimers that the data provided is not for surveying or building purposes. Hopefully these outdated laws will eventually be changed, but until then it's important to understand what functions you will not be allowed to perform.
- Another example of this is thermal imaging. Anyone can buy a thermal drone, but to be successful you need training to understand how to capture and interpret useful data. In this case training may not be required by law, but the lack of certification will make it harder to find customers and open yourself up to liability if a client relies on improperly captured or processed data.
- Don't buy everything at once. Invest in tools as you need them or you might end up with hardware sitting on the shelves, software licenses and subscriptions expiring before you get to use them, etc.
- Be prepared to network as if your livelihood as an commercial drone pilot depends on it, because it does. You can't just put up a website and wait for the phone to ring. If you are going after real estate, construction, and inspections, for example, you should be cold calling and emailing, showing up at offices with brochures, joining local business groups (Chamber of Commerce, BNI), networking in local social media groups (Nextdoor, LinkedIn, Facebook), going to home shows, and so on.
Starting a successful drone business
In summary, the best chance of starting a successful drone business and be a commercial drone pilot almost always requires using a drone as a tool to supplement your real skill(s), be they photography, videography, real estate, construction, etc. It's important to research your local market and see not only what's in demand, but how much competition there is.
Make sure you are legally allowed to offer your services according to all federal, state, and local laws, and even if your work is not regulated, consider training if you use any specialized technology.
Be frugal when it comes to buying hardware and software — research heavily and, when possible, buy what you need when you need it.
And, most importantly, HUSTLE!
Hope this helps!
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