How Much does it Cost to Start a Drone Program
Updated: Sep 13
A question I get a lot is, "how much does a drone program costs to start." Like any good question, there are a lot of caveats and "it depends" type answers. However, let me take a stab at it with the conditions I'm describing for general-purpose drone use. This includes high-quality marketing material, inspections, quantity take-offs, and 3D modeling/as-builts.
There are many drones out there that range in price from a few hundred to over a hundred thousand. Two very common multi-use commercial drones are DJI's Phantom 4 Pro and Mavic 2 Pro. Once you add a couple of extra batteries, a case, a memory card, and the extended warranty, you'll be around $2,500 for either of them. DJI Care Refresh is the manufacture's extended warranty plan, which covers two drone replacements even if it's your fault. It's worth the investment, especially for new pilots.
Exam and Registration
To fly drones commercially, you need to pass the FAA Part 107 knowledge test and earn your remote pilot certificate. The exam is given at 3rd party testing sites, so the cost can vary. However, if you go to a PSI testing site, the exam fee is usually around 150 dollars. The FAA also requires you to register your drone, which you can do only for 5 dollars.
I adamantly support having your team start with a comprehensive drone training course. It's critical! At a minimum, you'll need some help preparing for the Part 107 exam. However, that's just the start. It is beneficial for someone to show you all of the available tools to comply with the FAA rules. I also highly recommend a class that uses a quality flight simulator. Flying in person is good, but the fastest way to learn to gauge distances is by crashing…and crashing often. You also need to get more out of your drone than just a pretty picture. Learning how to create a 3D model, topo maps, and quantity take-off data is critical. Enroll in a class that gives you access to software that other professionals are using and shows you in detail how to use it. I designed the online Applied Drone Technology course through Clemson University with the express purpose of getting companies new to drones in the air the right way.
3D Modeling Software
Many drones are essentially a smart flying camera. However, you can get so much more from your data than just a simple image or video. I strongly encourage companies starting to use drones to invest in good structure-from-motion (SfM) software to create 3D models, surveys, and maps. We use ContextCapture from Bentley Systems in the Applied Drone Technology course. Those who pass the class can receive the software for half-off ($1,600) for their first year.
Your existing insurance provider may be able to sell you drone insurance; however, oftentimes, they can't. There are several online drone insurance providers available. As an example, SkyWatch.ai provides annual, monthly, and even hourly drone policies. A $1M yearly plan starts at $750 but can be reduced by uploading your flight logs demonstrating a safe flying history.
Return on Investment (ROI)
All said and done; you're looking to spend about $6,500 to start a program. The "investment" part is always easier to calculate than the "return." However, it doesn't take many labor hours saved, jobs won, defects found earlier, accidents prevent or repeat clients to cover six grand.