There is no doubt that drones are making a huge impact on the way business is done. Drones are a $43 billion-dollar global industry supporting construction, agriculture, law enforcement, and many other markets. However, there is a divide between companies that need drone services and skilled pilots able to provide it. Many entrepreneurs have done well filling that need as freelance drone operators. However, starting a drone business out of the gate can be difficult. To be successful, you must develop a reputation in your area, cultivate a base of repeat clients and have a portfolio of successful jobs. A challenge many startups have is that they can’t get any jobs because they don’t have the experience, and they can’t get the experience because they haven’t landed any jobs. The answer for many is to join a drone service provider’s network of independent pilots.
How Does It Work
Several companies have applied the ride-share model to the drone industry. Here is how it works. A customer needing drone services contacts the service provider and provides initial information about the project. The service provider reaches back out and collects more detailed information, such as how large the job is, what specific data is needed, and any access considerations. They then reach out to their network of independent drone pilots and secure a pilot to do the job for a given price. The pilots in the network are not employees of the company. They are IRS 1099 independent contractors. They must have their own drone, transportation, and means to complete the mission. The service provider then provides the customer with a price to do the job. It will include their overhead, insurance, pilot’s fee, and often a price to process the data into 3D models or point clouds.
How to Get Started
Joining a network is easy, and there isn’t any reason why you can’t join more than one. Click this link to our job page showing the most common networks. Each is a little different but generally has a similar process. There will be an online application where you will provide your Part 107 information, experience, specific qualifications or certifications, and the drone you own. The better qualified you and your equipment are, the more likely you’ll be selected for the better-paying jobs. For example, you’ll be in the driver’s seat if you have experience, a Level 1 UAS thermography certification, and a drone with a high-resolution infrared camera. However, if you only have a Part 107 license and a small RGB pro-sumer grade drone, you may need to take lower-paying jobs to build up your resume and capital to buy a better drone. Make sure you read the “Special Considerations” section below before you start the job.
There are a lot of benefits to joining a service provider network, especially when you’re starting out. They are a great way to gain experience without spending much time setting up a company or marketing campaign. You can also get a feel for the business before investing in additional certifications, hardware, and training. Most of them are also free to join. Several of them do charge a small monthly fee of around 10 dollars. I’m sure this is a small revenue stream for them, but it’s more about having a network of “real” pilots that will answer the call when a job is posted. Even a little skin in the game weeds out the folks who aren’t really interested.
Before joining a drone service provider, please consider the following:
Part 107: You must have your Part 107 Remote Pilot Certification. This is a hard requirement for all service providers.
Hardware: The type of hardware you have will significantly impact the jobs you can get. As a rule, you need to have a 20mp camera for the vast majority of the jobs. This includes the Phantom 4, Mavic 2, or Autel Evo 2. Getting jobs with smaller drones is possible, but you’re probably limited to real estate property photos or other simple jobs. Not that this is bad! As Loki said, “I consider experience experience.”
Certifications: The APSA BPERP and Level 1 UAS Thermographer certifications can set you apart from your competitors. The APSA BPERP is the only nationally recognized certification that attests to your ability to operate an aircraft. The thermographer certification is a requirement for any thermal job. I don’t recommend investing in a thermal drone until you’ve done the training.
Thermal Drone Resolution: Not all infrared cameras are the same. If you are going to invest in a thermal camera make sure it has a minimum resolution of 640x512. Anything significantly less than that will limit the number of jobs to a point it’s just not worth it.
DroneDeploy: Having experience with software is especially handy. DroneDeploy is an online application used widely to collect data and create 3D models. Clients often will use DroneDeploy to articulate the data they want to collect. Experience with the application will allow you to fly missions designed by the client.
Airspace: You will be hired as an independent contractor, and you are expected to know what you’re doing. Using tools like Aloft.ai to plan your mission and request LAANC authorization if operating in controlled airspace is essential.
Privacy: Similar to checking airspace, you must be mindful of privacy concerns. The service provider won’t be out there in the field with you. You must evaluate the mission site for yourself and stay out of trouble. Check out my blog on privacy best practices for more information.
Be Friendly: When you get a job, check in with the field staff and be friendly. Most of the service providers will send a follow-up survey about the experience. The last thing you want is a negative review. Tell the field staff what you’re doing, where you’ll be flying, and what kind of data they can expect. If the customer had a good experience, they might request that you be the pilot that returns.
Insurance: Ask the drone service provider if they have a blanket insurance policy that covers your missions. If not, purchase your own insurance. Policies are available by the hour for less than $20. Skywatch.ai is a leading drone insurance providers.
Incorporate: Consider incorporating your business as an LLC. Incorporating your business provides a liability shield for your personal assets. Without it, if something terrible happens, your personal assets, such as your house, car, and bank accounts, can be used to settle the claim. When you incorporate, only the assets associated with the company are exposed. Additionally, there may be tax advantages to incorporating. You may be able to expense or deduct certain purchases from your taxable income. While incorporating sounds scary, it really isn’t. With online services such as Legal Zoom or ZenBusiness, you can normally incorporate for less than $100 plus state fees.
Where to Start
If you’re new to the drone business, consider starting with our online UAS Vocation course. This eight-week course gives you everything you need to know to operate safely in the national airspace. We start by preparing you for the Part 107 FAA knowledge exam. We then move into regulatory compliance tools and teach flight skills using our state-of-the-art simulator. You will also earn your APSA BPERP certification through the simulator. Photogrammetry is an important piece. We teach photogrammetry using DroneDeploy as our structure-from-motion solution. DroneDeploy is one of the most used applications by service providers’ customers. We close out the course covering thermography. There is a lot to thermography, so we spread it over three weeks ending with your Level 1 UAS Thermography exam.