Over the last decade, commercially available drones capable of high-resolution photography have proliferated. Whereas these tools had been limited to the military, now they are accessible to the public, giving way to a whole new branch of aerial photography.
With this new technology, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), it’s become possible to take snapshots from angles that used to be unreachable without a helicopter. Now, drone footage is everywhere, and most viewers take these aerial shots for granted.
In addition to a thriving ecosystem of hobbyists, drones have affected many professional domains, ranging from real estate to agriculture, surveying, and opening up new positions to fill. Anyone interested in photography or technology, for instance, should consider a career in drone piloting.
What You Need To Get Started
Depending on the venture, the cost of entering the drone business varies greatly. For someone taking event photos, purchasing a drone for a few hundred dollars plus licensing and insurance costs may be enough. Buying specialized equipment that costs at least several thousand dollars is necessary for someone getting into areas like precision agriculture or building inspections.
It’s also essential to become a reasonably skillful pilot before setting up shop, which may involve training. “It’s easy to learn the basics of flying a drone,” according to Ryan Humble, the manager of ESPN’s Drone Operations team. “However, the more complex shots take many flight hours to perfect. We use simulators and minimum flight hour requirements to ensure our team’s skill sets stay up to date on each type of drone we use.”
In other words, be prepared to take on a major new skill – albeit a rewarding one.
In the United States, anyone operating a drone for commercial purposes must have a Part 107 license, which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues. This license can be obtained by passing a written test, similar to a driver’s license. Currently, there is no skill test requirement for commercial drone operators.
The Part 107 license is a requirement for all commercial operators, whether full- or part-time. All drones used in a business will also have to be registered.
When starting any business, it’s essential to protect oneself from liabilities. Drone piloting is no different. Commercial liability insurance will cover damages caused by the drone, but additional coverage is needed to insure the drone. For part-timers, some insurance plans may allow for seasonal coverage.
Most drone businesses involve producing video content. This content, of course, needs to be edited. Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro are the leading video-editing software, but DaVinci Resolve can get the job done for free in many cases.
Types of Drone Jobs
The field of commercial drone operation is still in its early days. Below is a list of ways people make money with these devices, which will undoubtedly expand in the coming years.
Weddings & Events
Increasingly, it’s common for couples to hire someone capable of providing drone shots of their outdoor weddings. This job requires someone skilled at taking both still images and video footage. The same holds for other ceremonies, like graduations.
There is also a demand for drone photography at corporate events, such as retreats or celebrations. Finding gigs in one’s community with sporting events and local fairs may be possible too.
While freelancing is one option, consider working with established local photography businesses that may lack a drone operator.
Photography and Stock Libraries
Drones are an exciting new device in the photographer’s toolkit, and people with solid portfolios may be able to sell prints or find commissions.
“About 10% of my paid photography freelancing work involves drones,” according to freelance photographer Sebastian Podesta. “But, when I’m asked to do it, it’s my favorite part.”
Another way to sell drone images is to upload them to stock libraries such as Adobe Stock, Getty Images, and Shutterstock. Remember that the stock-image market is increasingly saturated, and selling images this way may yield diminishing returns. However, if someone is already taking tons of photos and videos, it might be worth uploading some to see if they sell. Note that these uploads must be high-quality, and the sites may still reject them.
It’s become standard for high-end real estate to showcase drone photography of the home and grounds. Some real estate agents also shoot footage, while others hire an outside professional. Drone newcomers interested in photography can film houses in their spare time, then approach real estate agencies with the relevant portfolio work.
“The basics are easy to master,” according to drone photographer and realtor Barry Richards of EXIT Realty Garden Gate Team, “but it requires the eye and experience of a professional photographer or videographer to produce professional results.”
Drones are ideal for inspecting buildings, construction sites, and various facilities. For example, drones have become indispensable for getting information on the state of a roof. The downside to this kind of work is that a person will need more than simple camera drones; thermal imaging is usually required, adding at least a few thousand dollars to the costs. Some training is also a prerequisite, and many courses now cater to these specializations. While the barrier to entry is higher, these jobs pay better than less demanding drone work.
At the far end of the technical spectrum, using drones in precision agriculture is proving transformative. Farming involves massive tracts of land that are labor-intensive to monitor and maintain. For farmers, planting seeds, spraying pesticides, and looking for varmints in far corners of the field are just a few ways drones are being used. With some drones, measuring the amount of sunlight reaching the crops is even possible.
Often, farming drones are automated, and the operator needs to draw less on piloting skills than on knowledge of how to work the various sensors and software. Farming is another area where pricier drones and training are required, but it may be suited to developing a stable career.
Surveying and Mapping
Drones have another use case in surveying and mapping. In this kind of drone work, the operator flies the UAV over the designated area, comprehensively photographing the terrain so that it can be sewn together digitally or turned into 3D models. Thermal surveys, LiDAR, and other scanning methods may come into play depending on the situation.
“We use large, heavy-duty drones like the M300 with a LiDAR system. These surveys help map out areas for highway routes and forest lands,” says Peter Leslie, who runs Skykam Drone Inspections in the UK along with his father James. He also does thermal surveys that detect problems on solar farms, as well as infrastructural inspections of bridges, buildings, and siloes.
As should be clear, surveying and mapping is another drone sector requiring advanced training and specialized drones. However, this should not stop committed individuals from pursuing this direction. Leslie indicates that these more esoteric areas of the drone business take time to reach, and people should be patient with themselves.
“I began a side job where I took drone photos of houses, events, and construction sites to make some extra money,” he says. “So, my experience with drones started at my job, but it quickly turned into something I’m really passionate about.”