If you're considering becoming a freelance drone pilot, congratulations! The commercial drone industry is growing rapidly, and there's no better time to become a part of it. You're likely wondering how to actually become a freelance drone pilot. There are several important steps in the process and things to consider along the way, and we'll walk you through the process of getting your freelance drone business in the air.
Here's a list of things you need to do to become a freelance drone pilot:
- Get a Part 107 certification
- Get the necessary hardware
- Identify an insurance provider
- Register your business
- Identify the services you want to offer
- Build a website
- Network and advertise
Part 107 Certification
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires all commercial drone operators to have a special certification. What does this mean exactly? It means that in order to legally earn money using a drone, the operator must have the FAA Part 107 Certification.
If this already sounds confusing, don't worry. We'll walk you through it.
Study for the Exam
Don't let the word “exam” scare you. The test covers some challenging aviation concepts, but with a bit of studying, you'll be more than prepared to pass.
The test covers a wide array of topics, but for the most part, they can be summarized by the following:
- Reading and interpreting sectional charts
- Weather and how it affects drone operation
- Reading aviation weather reports
- Safety and risk management
- FAA drone rules and regulations
The curriculum offered by these companies is stellar, but it's expensive. There are plenty of free online resources available that will help prepare you for the test, so don't feel pressured into taking a formal course to prepare for the test.
Schedule and Take the Exam
At this point, you've become familiar with these basic aviation concepts, and you're ready to take the Part 107 knowledge test.
The next thing you need to do is schedule your exam. Go to the CATS website, type in your location, and select “Unmanned Aircraft General – Small” from the dropdown menu. When you click “Locate a Test Center,” a list of testing centers will appear within the radius you've selected.
Once you've identified a good testing center in your area, call the number at the top of the page to schedule the time and date of your exam.
At this point you just have to wait for test day. In the meantime, it's a good idea to brush up on the material you've been studying to increase your chances of success on the test.
Remember — the fee to take the Part 107 test is $150. I know this sounds expensive, but it's a good investment. In the commercial drone industry, you'll make that back in no time.
After you take the test, you'll have to submit some information to the FAA and wait for your license. Once you receive it, you're officially a certified commercial drone operator, and you're ready for the next step in the process.
Renew the Certification
Once you pass your test and are issued a license, your certification will remain valid for 2 years. In order to renew your license, you have to take the same test again and renew your license through the FAA.
Get the Hardware
In order to become a freelance drone pilot, it should go without saying that you'll need a drone. If you already have a good drone that can be used for commercial purposes, great! If not, we'll go over some factors to consider before you get one.
Perhaps the most important feature on your drone is the camera. Whether you're taking aerial real estate photos or making 3D maps, the drone's camera is the piece of equipment that's going to actually produce the deliverables you're giving to the client.
With that said, let's go over some of the specifications of a good drone camera.
4K resolution has become the industry standard for drone video footage. It's extremely sharp, and it provides plenty of detail. If you want to shoot commercially and really impress your clients, 4K is a must.
12 megapixels and higher is ideal. This means still photos will be much better.
Intelligent Flight Modes
Drones with more sophisticated intelligent flight modes are ideal for commercial applications. These features make operating the aircraft easier on the pilot, and they open up different creative possibilities for drone work. Let's look at a few examples.
Drones with a Point of Interest or orbit mode are useful for creating marketing or promo video content. This feature ensures a smooth, cinematic shot every time.
Drones that are compatible with software like DroneDeploy allow the pilot to plan autonomous missions that can capture data for things like mapping and 3D modeling.
These are just a couple examples of the many ways intelligent flight modes make commercial drone operation easier.
Aside from the camera, there are a few other features that a drone should have if it's going to be used commercially.
GPS lock is very important. GPS lock helps drones maintain their position in the air and remain stable, even in stronger winds. This translates to smoother video footage and virtually effortless aerial photography.
GPS lock is also important from a safety standpoint. A drone with no GPS lock capabilities or an unreliable GPS lock could prove to be a liability, as it's more prone to drifting away and crashing. As an FAA certified drone operator and business owner, make sure your equipment is up to par in terms of safety measures.
This feature also allows the pilot to set the drone's home point. Simply put, this is a failsafe measure that lets the drone return to a designated spot if the battery gets too low or if it loses connection with the remote controller.
Drones to Consider
At this point, you might be under the impression that you'll have to spend thousands of dollars on a drone to become a freelance drone pilot. This couldn't be farther from the truth. There are several high-quality drones you can get for around $1,500 or less. Let's discuss some examples.
Autel Robotics Evo
The Autel Evo is a great choice for a commercial drone. It's relatively affordable, it has a great camera, and it's packed with intelligent flight features. In fact, the Evo is the drone I use for my drone business, and it has served me well.
See current pricing on Amazon here.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
DJI's Phantom line has transformed the consumer drone landscape over the last few years. The newest Phantom model, the Phantom 4 Pro, is an excellent choice for a commercial drone.
It has an amazing camera, a host of unique intelligent flight features, and robust third party support that will prove extremely beneficial when operating commercially. See this page for more information on the DJI Phantom series.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the manufacturer's newest product. Equipped with a high-quality Hasselblad camera, this drone is more than capable of delivering impressive results when used commercially. What's more, the Mavic 2 Pro has the latest and most advanced intelligent flight modes. See this page for more information on the DJI Mavic 2 Pro.
Register Your Drone
After you get your drone (or if you already have it), it's important to register it with the FAA. Make sure to select the Part 107 option because the FAA differentiates between aircraft that are registered as recreational and aircraft that are registered as commercial. It only costs $5 to register each drone.
Once you register your drone, be sure to mark its exterior with your particular registration number. I've found that using a simple label maker is a great way to do this.
Identify an Insurance Provider
Modern drones are relatively safe. A lot of software engineering goes into making features that prevent collisions and catastrophic failures in the air. That said, accidents do happen, which makes liability insurance an important consideration as a freelance drone pilot.
The purpose of drone liability insurance is to provide coverage in the event of an accident that results in the harm of a person or their property.
As a professional drone pilot, it's highly recommended to be insured. This will protect you if there's an accident, and most clients will want the peace of mind knowing you're fully insured.
There are numerous ways to go about obtaining drone liability insurance, some of which are more complicated and expensive than others. Luckily, one of the best and most popular drone insurance options is very straightforward.
Verifly is a smartphone application that allows drone pilots to purchase liability insurance on-demand. In other words, Verifly lets you buy insurance coverage on a job-by-job basis, only when you need it.
The app determines your location and, based on the flight radius, flight time, drone weight, and desired coverage, generates the cost of liability insurance coverage for that particular area. You can then purchase liability coverage for 1, 4, or 8 hours.
With other conventional insurance providers, you'll pay a flat rate for coverage just like you would any other kind of insurance coverage. The benefit of using Verifly is that you only have to purchase insurance when you need it. This means that, if you go a week or more without flying, you won't be paying anything.
Another good thing about Verifly is that it sends you an email confirmation after each purchase. This is helpful if you have a client that wants proof of insurance before you do a job for them.
Additionally, buying insurance coverage per job makes it easier to bill clients for part or all of the insurance coverage. In other words, Verifly provides you with a tangible dollar value of what the insurance cost is to perform that particular job.
Overall, Verifly is a convenient and flexible way to get drone liability insurance when you need it. It's is trusted by many commercial drone pilots, myself included.
Register Your Business
Now you're licensed as a commercial drone pilot and you have a commercial-grade drone. The next step is to register your business.
As a freelance drone pilot, you should consider registering as a sole proprietor. This just means that you're the sole owner and operator of your business and that there is no legal distinction between you and your business. This is the easiest, most straightforward way to have an official business.
Registering your business is a good idea for a few reasons.
For one, it allows you to operate under a business name. This is helpful if you want to be recognized as a business entity under a name different than your own.
Secondly, it gives you more credibility. As a registered sole proprietor, you'll be viewed as more trustworthy and competent, even if you're brand new to the commercial drone industry. Being an official business owner will set you apart from all the fly-by-night drone pilots looking for business.
Lastly, as a sole proprietor, you're eligible for a wide array of tax deductions. For example, all of the miles you drive for business purposes equate to a tax deduction. This is just one example of the many tax deductions you can get as an official business owner.
The best part is, registering a sole proprietorship only costs around $20.
Register as an LLC
If you want to expand your business and have employees, you might consider registering it as a Limited Liability Company (LLC). The benefit of having an LLC is that it provides a layer of protection between your personal assets and your business. However, there are additional requirements (including cost) to have an LLC, so make sure your business is ready for it.
Identify Your Services
Identifying the services you'd like to offer clients is one of the most important steps in the process of becoming a freelance drone pilot. This is when you'll decide what you want to get paid to do with your drone.
Think about the different ways you can use your drone for business purposes, from simple aerial photography to 3D mapping and modeling. Then, create a list of specific services you want to offer. For example, a freelance drone pilot could offer aerial real estate photography, 3D mapping and modeling, and visual roof inspections.
When it comes to drone services, strategic diversity is important. Simply put, the more services you can offer to clients, the better. As a drone pilot, diversity means a more varied client base, which means more income.
In other words, specializing in only one particular service can be limiting, especially when just starting out.
However, it's important to maintain a high level of technical expertise with all the services you offer. Avoid spreading yourself too thin by offering services in which you aren't knowledgeable and competent. It's certainly good to be adaptive when it comes to meeting clients' needs, but always ensure that you're adequately knowledgeable before branching out and providing a new kind of service.
Make a Website
As a freelance drone pilot, having an online presence of some sort is crucial. The primary purpose of a website is to house your professional portfolio, list the services you offer, and provide your contact information.
While this can be achieved with Instagram or Facebook, having a separate website to call your own gives you even more professional credibility because it shows that you went the extra mile to present yourself as a professional with your own online space.
A website for your business doesn't have to be overly busy and complicated. In the drone business, your portfolio is the primary driver of new business. Prospective clients will be more likely to hire you for work if they can easily see some of the work you've done before. For this reason, your site doesn't need a lot of overwhelming content or aesthetics — let your work speak for itself.
Make a Portfolio
Speaking of portfolios, you're likely wondering how to make a portfolio if you haven't actually done any work for clients yet. This is a valid thought, and it was for me when I first started my drone business.
Think back to the services you'd like to perform for clients. If you'd like to use your drone for real estate photography, then just take aerial photos of nice properties in your area and upload them to your portfolio.
If you want to get into mapping and 3D modeling, create a map of your neighborhood or nearby sports field and put it in your portfolio.
In the same way, if you want to create aerial marketing footage for clients, create a mock project that showcases your capabilities and add it to your portfolio.
In other words, just create your own work based on the services you want to offer. Clients won't be able to tell that it wasn't actually paid work; the important part is that they're blown away by what you're capable of.
Don't let a lack of experience prevent you from having a stellar portfolio right from the get-go. Just create mock samples of your services to start. Then, as you begin to do work for clients, you can slowly build up your portfolio with real work you're paid for.
Network, Network, Network
As a freelance drone pilot, you should always be networking. It's extremely important to develop and maintain your professional network. Let's talk about some practical ways you can do so.
As a freelance drone pilot, don't underestimate the power of LinkedIn. Believe it or not, LinkedIn isn't just for people in corporate life with conventional jobs; it's a valuable network building tool that can help you establish business connections.
The cool thing about LinkedIn is that you can build a professional profile that exists solely to highlight your capabilities and experience. Make sure your profile describes the services you provide, and upload your relevant work you've done so your connections can see it. You never know when someone might stumble across your profile and reach out for your drone services.
The other great thing about LinkedIn is that it's a forum that facilitates the formation of business connections. This means that it's totally appropriate and natural to reach out to people you don't know about the services you can offer them.
In sum, LinkedIn is the platform where it's completely acceptable to make yourself look awesome while you continuously reach out to prospective clients. As a freelance drone pilot, this is definitely a resource you should be utilizing.
As a freelance drone pilot, advertising is crucial when it comes to attracting new clients. When it comes to advertising, drone business owners face one sizeable obstacle, and that is getting prospective clients to see the value in drone services.
The drone industry is still relatively new, so many people don't quite understand how drones can benefit their businesses. Additionally, many businesses are simply set in their ways and are unwilling to embrace newer technology, even if the technology can help them. For these reasons, it's important to tailor your advertising in a way that concisely conveys to potential clients how your services will help them.
As uncomfortable as it might be at first, cold emailing prospective clients is a great way to advertise your services. From realtors to construction managers, cold emailing is a quick and easy way to spread the word about your business.
The goal is to acquire long-term clients that will frequently need your services. Keep this in mind when determining who to contact about your drone services.
A good cold email to a prospective client contains a brief introduction, with the majority of the message emphasizing the value your services will bring to the recipient. Be sure to provide a link to your online portfolio. Don't try to sell yourself too hard. Be professional but casual in your approach.
In general, you can expect for the vast majority of the people you cold email about your services to not respond, but don't let this discourage you. The idea behind cold emailing is to cast a very wide net. Eventually you'll get some interest, and if you play your cards right, you'll develop a long-term relationship with the client.
Business cards are a necessity for freelance drone pilots. You never know who you might run into that could benefit from your services. Having a business card to hand out that'll lead people to your online portfolio should not be underestimated.
Leaving business cards in different places is also a great idea. See this list of great places to leave business cards. This is an effortless way to lead people to your website.
Car magnets and window decals are another great way to advertise for your business. Simply driving around town with your website and contact information on your vehicle is an incredible way of getting exposure and gaining new clients. Think about how many new people would see your information each day with a decal on your back window.
Ultimately, you can't rely solely on people stumbling across your website and contacting you for your services out of the blue. Unfortunately, it simply doesn't work that way, especially when you're new to the commercial drone world. Getting widespread exposure for your business through visual marketing is a fundamental component of building a drone business.
Craigslist is an advertising medium that's often overlooked by freelance drone pilots. This website is a widely popular forum that a lot of people use to find local freelancers and other small business owners.
For just a few dollars each month, Craigslist allows business owners to post an advertisement for their services. This is another great way to get your drone business some local exposure.
Becoming a freelance drone pilot is a great decision. The drone industry is booming, and drones are making their way into more industries every single day.
As you begin your career as a freelance drone pilot, keep a few things in mind:
- Abide by FAA rules and regulations along with local laws. As a business owner, always strive to do the right thing and don't cut corners.
- Go above and beyond for your clients. Going the extra mile when you don't have to is virtually always a good investment.
- Any time you fly a drone, you're acting as an ambassador for the drone community. This applies even more so when operating a drone commercially. Conduct business with a healthy respect of what could go wrong in your operations, and take the necessary measures to mitigate those risks.
- Advertise and network constantly. The more exposure you can get, the better.
- Don't forget to have fun. You're a part of a relatively small community of people that get to earn a living flying drones. Treat business like business, but have fun doing it.