Updated: May 24
A common question I get from those thinking about taking the Applied Drone Technology course is “how much can I earn as a drone pilot.” Like any good question, the answer always starts with “it depends.” Let’s start with the qualifier that most commercial drone pilots do not do it full-time. In my experience, those commercially operating a UAS are either doing it as a side job or using drones as a tool for their existing full-time job. For example, a full-time high school teacher may earn a little extra money by getting aerial images for a real estate agent. Another example is a full-time bridge engineer using drones for safer inspections. This isn’t to say that there aren’t full-time commercial drone pilots. Many utility companies hire pilots to operate a drone while their technicians diagnose issues with their electrical equipment. Others own their own drone business where they capture data for contractors, marketing firms, and wedding planners. The bottom line is the field is growing very rapidly, and there is a lot of opportunities.
Salary as a Free Lancer Drone Pilot
So enough of the qualifiers…how much can I make? So let’s start with drones as a side hustle. UAVcoach.com reports that drone pilots working for themselves can earn between $25/hr and $250/hr. That’s a pretty big swing, and the differentiator is if expertise is needed in what data is collected and if post-processing is required. Pilots in the real estate business start in the $25/hr range. However, those collecting data for a construction project start at $50/hr. The hourly rate jumps to $100/hr for utility inspections, $140/hr for those in the insurance business, and over $200/hr for filmmaking.
Full-Time Drone Pilot Salary
So how about if you work as a full-time drone pilot. Payscale.com collected data from 124 drone pilots whose salaries ranged from $31k/yr to $99k/yr. ZipRecruiter had a wider range and reported that drone pilots earned between $22k/yr and $126k/yr. Salary.com was consistent with both, indicating salaries between $40k/yr and $112k/yr. Again, you need to take these numbers with a grain of salt. It’s not just about flying a drone. It’s about knowing what data needs to be collected and/or if you can post-process it. Most drone service providers earn less than $50k/yr, according to Drone Analyst. According to their research, the top three industries making over $100k/year are 1) surveying, 2) aerial photography/videography, and 3) utility infrastructure inspection.
Start Small and Grow into It
Again, there is a lot that can skew these numbers. Location, experience, industry, and required hardware significantly impact what companies will pay or what freelancers can charge. If you’re interested in getting into this business, my advice is generally to start small and grow into it. The industry isn’t going away. You have time. Don’t rush and make a poor decision.