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How to Become a Commercial Drone Pilot



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. A recent report from Goldman Sachs projected $17 billion of spending on drones from 2016 to 2020 coming from consumers and another $13 billion from commercial and civil industries. That’s because more professionals, like realtors, security firms, advertising agencies, architects, construction firms and developers are looking for aerial video to do business. 

With a recent proposal from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there’s a chance the demand for drone pilots will grow even more. The FAA proposed that flying drones over people and at night should be legal under certain circumstances, and it should not require a waiver. The current regulations require that drone pilots receive a waiver to fly their drones over people or at night. If that requirement is removed, it would enhance the industry and allow drones to fly more frequently. In theory, this would increase the need for drone pilots and might open up night shifts for drone pilots among other opportunities. 

According to an article on Lexology, “The proposed rules will be an important step forward for companies using drones in their business. The current rule prohibiting overhead flight is a significant deterrent to adopting drones as a business strategy because it forces businesses to either conduct operations of limited and unproductive scope or apply for a waiver from the FAA.” 

Even as the industry grows and gains popularity, there are still numerous regulations and restrictions surrounding drone pilots. The Department of Homeland Security recently released a video and other information outlining the security risk of using drones, especially those manufactured in China. If you want to become a commercial drone pilot, it’s important to understand the security threats posed by drones. 

With drones becoming an increasingly relevant industry, it’s not surprising that some people want to enter the field and fly a drone for money. For the most part, it’s common to see interested pilots wondering how to become a commercial drone pilot. Despite the rising profile of drones, there’s not an abundance of information available regarding the process of becoming a drone pilot outside of government sites. 

If you are interested in learning how to become a commercial drone pilot but don’t know much about drones, it’s first important to learn the basics of the industry. Increasing your drone knowledge is a good way to get ahead in the field. We’ll highlight a few common questions from interested drone pilots before diving into the process of becoming a pilot and discussing important industry regulations.

What does a commercial drone pilot do?

At the most basic and broad level, commercial drone pilots fly drones for companies in a range of industries and for varying purposes. Some companies use drones to take aerial photos and videos for marketing purposes, while other companies use drones for aerial surveillance. There are several uses for drones, and commercial drone pilots execute different drone needs for businesses. 

In our research, we found that most companies hire drone pilots on a freelance basis. Many companies don’t have full-time drone pilots, but rather bring people in to fly drones for specific projects. This can require a significant amount of travel to project sites. 

What’s the difference between a drone, a UAV and a UAS?

A UAV is an unmanned aerial vehicle. Another common term used in this industry is UAS, which refers to unmanned aircraft systems. Depending on where you’re reading about drones, you may see different terminology used. The FAA frequently uses UAV to refer to drones while most mainstream media outlets use the term drone as it’s more well known to the average reader. For the most part, those terms are used interchangeably. 

A UAS, on the other hand, refers to more than just the aircraft. A UAS includes the whole system, which means the steering system and the pilot are lumped in with this phrase. That means the UAV is a part of the UAS. 

If you want to get technical, UAVs are more advanced versions of drones. If someone is using a $100 drone for recreational purposes, it won’t be referred to as a UAV, but an expensive UAV can be considered a drone. As we mentioned, the FAA uses UAV frequently, and that’s the more official term for what commercial drone pilots will use.

How much money does a commercial drone pilot make?

The salary of drone pilots varies quite a bit, especially considering that many pilots work on a freelance basis. The hourly rate also varies by project and industry. Work with thermography might yield higher results, according to an article from MarketWatch, which outlines a drone pilot who makes $200,000 annually thanks in large part to his thermography certification. 

PayScale lists the average hourly rate of drone pilots at $24.18, but that rate varied from $17.75 for the lowest-earning pilots to $78.49 for the highest earners. It’s hard to get an exact estimate for how much a drone pilot will make, but the potential to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars annually exists. Achieving that goal requires taking on a significant number of projects. 

If you want to get in on this groundswell and become a commercial drone pilot, you will need three things: 

  1. A drone pilot license
  2. Professional drone insurance
  3. A drone

Get a drone license

The first step in becoming a drone pilot is obtaining a drone 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, nonrecreational or governmental purpose needs to have a special license to do so. This license is called a Part 107, named 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% of the questions correctly to pass.

Applicants must be at least 16 years old and have a government-issued picture ID. Additional requirements from the FAA include the ability to speak, read, write, and understand English as well as being in the physical and mental condition necessary to complete a drone flight. 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 the 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 offers to pay the fee for your Rule 107 test if you don’t pass. Taking practice tests is a good way to increase your knowledge and feel more comfortable when the actual test rolls around.

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 FAA summarizes its process to become a drone pilot in six steps, with the first three being the most noteworthy. 

  1. Schedule your drone test through a Knowledge Testing Center.
  2. Pass the aeronautical knowledge test.
  3. Complete FAA Form 8710-13. 

After completing those tasks, you receive an email once your background check is completed. You then are mailed your remote pilot certificate, and you should keep that with you when flying your drone.

Purchase drone insurance

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 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 provide up to $10 million in coverage. There’s even an app that allows you to buy on location for a fixed amount of time. You can even get drone insurance for as little as one hour.

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’ll need a 333 exemption, which is hard to get and generally requires a real, full-on pilot’s license.

Get flying

There are a few rules you’ll need to abide by as a commercial drone pilot. According to the FAA, the following are several rules that require a waiver.

Screenshot from FAA.gov

Before you start flying, you want to make sure you’re either following all of the Part 107 rules or that you receive a waiver for the above specifications. It’s helpful to get hands-on training as well, as it’s unlikely that you will get too many high-paying projects without proving that you have more than just knowledge and have flown drones previously.

A quick Google search yields dozens of potential in-person training options. You can find instructors in your area who can help you develop your skills through structured hands-on training. DARTDrones is a well-respected drone training company that helps pilots learn the basics of flying. The company also offers courses for when you’re looking to gain more advanced training. Plenty of options exist in the industry, and it’s worth spending the money to take one and learn how to fly your drone properly rather than trying to become a commercial drone pilot without hands-on training.

Upon following the rules and completing training, you should feel comfortable flying your drone commercially. The more experience you get once you start flying and completing commercial projects, the more money you will be able to charge for your services.

This year is a good time to become a commercial drone pilot, and the field can be lucrative. It will, however, take some money to purchase the equipment, training courses and insurance needed to become a pilot. If you want to become a commercial drone pilot, you have to be committed to the startup costs.

Additional reporting by Richard Baguley.



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