With the global commercial drone market expected to grow from USD 10.98 billion in 2023 to USD 54.81 billion by 2030, drone pilots are steadily growing in demand globally.
This means that if you are thinking of turning your love of drones from just a hobby to a business venture, now is the perfect time to do so.
We will review the 10 major steps needed to turn your love of drones into a full-time, drone business. In addition, there will be bonus tips that can aid in bettering your drone business.
Why Start a Drone Business?
As mentioned, exponential growth is expected in the drone market, year over year. This means that there is a lot of money to be made in the industry.
Getting in now will ensure many drone companies a solid foothold in such a lucrative market.
Secondly, depending on what industry you are targeting, the startup costs are relatively low, as we’ll discuss, shortly.
Getting a drone pilot license, prosumer drone, marketing materials (ie: business cards, flyers, and website), and insurance costs a few thousand dollars of investment capital.
Additionally, drone pilots are currently in high demand, resulting in excellent salaries.
Depending on the company a drone pilot might initially work for, the requirements, the complexity of the job, and the drone pilots’ experience, in the US the middle ground for drone salaries is around USD 75,000 – USD 80,000.
Freelancers that own their own drone businesses, as the only employees, regularly make USD $100,000+, depending on their areas of expertise.
For larger drone businesses these figures increase dramatically.
1. Become a Commercial Drone Pilot
Regardless of your country of residence, the first and most important step to starting a drone business is to obtain your country’s equivalent of a commercial drone pilot’s license.
In the United States, this would be flying under the FAA’s (Federal Aviation Authority’s) Small UAS Rule (Part 107), with a remote pilot certification.
To acquire a remote pilot certification in the United States (commonly referred to as a drone license), you must pass the FAA’s Part 107 test, otherwise known as the aeronautical knowledge exam: Unmanned Aircraft General – Small (UAG).
The Process of Becoming a Drone Pilot, in the US (Step-by-Step)
With the information provided directly by the FAA, below is the entire process needed to become a commercial drone pilot, step by step.
Obtain an FAA Tracking Number (FTN)
This is done by creating an Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) profile before registering for a knowledge test.
IACRA is a web-based certification/rating application that guides new drone pilots through the FAA’s airman application process.
IACRA is used to ensure applicants meet the FAA’s regulatory and policy requirements through the use of extensive data validation.
IACRA also uses electronic signatures to protect the information’s integrity, eliminates paper forms, and prints temporary certificates.
Schedule an appointment with a Testing Center
As mentioned prior, go to the FAA-approved Knowledge Testing Center site and schedule an appointment.
The test should be approximately $175.
To take the test, you’ll want to have available the following types of approved IDs:
- Driver permit or license issued by a U.S. state or territory
- U.S. Government identification card
- U.S. Military identification card
- Alien residency card
Most testing centers will provide the following:
- An FAA knowledge test supplement book
- Blank paper
- Transparent sheet
- Dry erase marker
Things to be aware of:
- Electronic devices are prohibited. These include smartphones and smartwatches. If you bring one, lockers are normally provided for you to store these items in.
- A standard calculator is allowed. Also, bring a ruler with you, as these may be required for some of the test questions.
- The test is 120 minutes long
- The minimum passing score is 70% which is a maximum of 18 questions wrong or a minimum of 42 questions right.
Pass the Aeronautical Knowledge Test: Unmanned Aircraft General – Small (UAG)
This can be done either by self-studying, as mentioned prior or with the help of an online Part 107 course.
Complete FAA Form 8710-13 for a remote pilot certificate
After you have passed the aeronautical knowledge exam, go to the electronic FAA Integrated Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application system (IACRA) and follow these steps (provided by the FAA):
- Log in with the username and password you set up in the prior step
- Click on “Start New Application” and then
a) Application Type “Pilot“
b) Certifications “Remote Pilot“
c) Other Path Information
d) Start Application
- Follow the application prompts
- When prompted, enter the 17-digit Knowledge Test Exam ID. Be aware that it may take up to 48 hours from the test date for the knowledge test to appear in IACRA.
- Sign the application electronically and submit it for processing.
Print your temporary pilot certificate
A confirmation email will be sent when you have completed the TSA security background check.
The confirmation email will provide instructions for printing a copy of the temporary remote pilot certificate from IACRA.
Receive your permanent card
A permanent remote pilot certificate will be sent via postal mail once all other FAA-internal processing is complete.
Per the FAA, it takes about six to eight weeks to process and send an applicant’s permanent certificate. You can check the IACRA website to see the current processing and issue date.
2. Define Your Target Market
After obtaining your country’s required certification(s), it is important to think about what industry or industries your drone business will focus on.
This is oftentimes dictated by what the local market deems as necessary.
To gather this information, you could initially look at the local drone companies in your area and see what industries they are targeting, as these will hone in on what the general area is supporting.
Conversely, it might be decided that you would like to dig into a niche market that is currently or relatively untouched in your local market.
Common industries supported by drones would be (and not limited to):
- Power & Utility
- Real Estate
- Search and Rescue
- Local Marketing
3. Acquire The Needed Drone Equipment
Like with any business, there will be initial start-up costs to purchase the needed drone(s) and equipment for the industries you will be supporting.
Depending on the industry you will be focusing on, drones for the job can be between USD 1,000.00 all the way up to USD 18,000.00+, give or take.
When it comes to commercial work, the following drone companies are known to have drones made specifically for many requirements of local industries:
These drone manufacturers offer drones ranging from consumer drones, to prosumer drones, all the way to drones that are used in Hollywood-level cinematic settings.
Defining your target market before purchasing a drone will greatly increase the odds of acquiring the correct drone for the industry you will be supporting at the start of your business.
As a side note, in the United States, it is required that you register all drones that will be used in a commercial capacity, regardless of their size and weight.
If you are using a DJI Mini 3 Pro, an Autel Evo Nano, or any sub-250g drone for commercial purposes, they will need to be registered.
4. Learn Advanced Flight Maneuvers
Flying frontwards, backward, and side to side is a fundamental skill most if not all drone pilots have thoroughly mastered.
Depending on what industry you are planning to enter with your drone business, more advanced flight controls may be needed, such as:
- manual orbits
- rises combined with simultaneous partial orbits and gimbal rotations
- complex follow paths
In addition to these, it is advisable to completely understand drone controls when a drone is flying backward, or when the drone is facing you, as yaw and sideways flight controls are reversed.
By being familiar with the controls of a drone in all flight orientations, a drone operator is not only able to perform the complex maneuvers clients might need but is also able to quickly act to avoid situations that could result in the loss of the drone or damage to property.
»Bonus: Learn Your Drones Autonomous Features
With many of the drone manufacturers mentioned above, as well as a host of others, there are included autonomous features.
These features enable drones to fly differing types of patterns and paths, without drone pilot stick input.
For instance, current model DJI drones have what are referred to as Intelligent Flight Modes. Some of these flight modes that can aid in filming for commercial purposes are, in part:
- FocusTrack – Point of Interest, Spotlight, Active Track
- Hyperlapse – Free, Course Lock, Circle, Waypoint
Aside from those modes, higher-tiered prosumer and commercial DJI drones have waypoint mission planning built right into the software, enabling those drones to follow pre-programmed points on a map, which paths can be saved for repeated use.
Likewise, Autel also has intelligent flight modes and a waypoints mission planner for its multiple line of consumer, prosumer, and commercial drones.
5. Build a Portfolio
Building a portfolio is an essential step when starting out with a drone company. The reason is if no one can physically see the services you provide, and how well you provide them, fairly few potential clients will hire you.
We will take one industry, Real Estate, as an example.
If you have never done a Drone Real Estate shoot for a client and are looking to break into the industry, how would you get started?
Simply find a friend with a home that has a well-manicured or landscaped yard or even use your own home, if it likewise shows well.
Pick the best angles that show off the exterior of the home and surrounding neighborhood and edit the photos to be, at the very least, the same quality or better than the local offerings in your area. Use those shots in the portfolio.
Many first-time drone business owners also do well initially offering free photo sessions for potential clients, in whatever industry of interest, to build their portfolio.
Many businesses will gladly use your temporary “free” services, as it is a win-win situation for them.
After your initial shoot/project, repeat the process a time or two to build a portfolio. Once you have physical proof of your quality of work, you can begin building a paid client base.
Note: Offering free services to build your portfolio should only be done a few times, as you want to start profiting from your drone business as soon as possible.
When it comes to pricing, various avenues can be taken. These being:
- Hourly/Daily Rates
- By Project
- Regular Customer retainer
This type of pricing is common. As you improve your portfolio and add flight hours and proficiency, the amount you can charge will increase.
Also, as you continue to fly in a certain industry you will be able to raise your prices to stay competitive with other drone pilots/companies with the same level of experience.
For an idea of what your local market can sustain, research local drone companies and see what their pricing structures are.
Try not to undercut your fellow drone pilots’ pricing, as this can eventually lead to “a race to the bottom”, lessening the value of local drone services.
Pricing by project can be a bit involved, as various aspects have to be taken into account, such as:
- Project length
- What is being delivered
- How important the deliverables are to the client
- Travel time and expenses
- The time needed to process the data or edit the footage
Once all of this information has been determined and an hourly rate formulated from this info, then you will be able to price the project based on the expected hourly income multiplied by the number of hours the project will take.
Having regular clients is a benefit to any business and is definitely so for drone work. With regular customers, you will have consistent work that can be depended on.
With Regular Customers, you will have the flexibility to work out recurring billing cycles that benefit both you and your client.
Having regular and dependable customers help build long-lasting, meaningful relationships that can be counted on for years to come.
Even with the best portfolio and all of the experience in the world, it will be very hard in this day and age of technology to get clients if you do not have a defined marketing strategy.
We will go through some of the important aspects of marketing necessary to build your new business.
Creating a business name should be paramount when putting together a marketing strategy, as your business name is your business identity.
When potential clients hear your business name, they should immediately be able to get a sense of what you do or what your drone business specialty is.
Tips for choosing a business name:
- Use easily recognizable and catchy names; names people will remember
- Avoid regional or location-specific names, as these tie you down to a particular area
- Try to incorporate your area(s) of expertise in the name
- When in doubt or if you run out of ideas, ask individuals you know for ideas, or look online for assistance (ie Social Media)
Next to business names, logos are equally important, as they help build your brand – visually. Like with business names, you’ll want a logo that is simplistic and will hold a potential customer’s attention.
It used to be a difficult and involved process to get a logo created many years ago.
Now, thanks to the internet and advanced graphic applications, you can have a memorable logo created by very talented graphic designers, as part of online freelance services.
A very popular site that houses freelance talent of all sorts, ranging from graphics designers to web developers to voice-over artists and everything in between, is Fiverr.
Of course, Fiverr isn’t the only game out there. There are many sites that house available graphics designers, available to create the right logo for your company.
Regardless of where you acquire a talented graphic design artist, it is advisable to select one that is highly rated and has plenty of examples of their work in their online portfolio.
Having spent time and money thinking up a catchy business name and having a memorable logo created, you’ll want to get both of these onto a business card as quickly as possible, along with your phone number and email address.
Also, as mentioned shortly, you’ll want to include your website on the card, so individuals can look at your portfolio.
Aside from the standard, paper-copy business cards, there are also NFC-enabled business cards.
These types of cards enable you to tap your card on someone’s phone and your contact information is then available on screen for the potential client to save.
Although the concept of business cards dates back hundreds of years, first starting out as “visiting cards”, they are a tried and true method for connecting potential customers to businesses all over the world.
With your new business name, logo, and examples from your portfolio, create flyers that highlight your area(s) of industry expertise and distribute these, in person, to the companies in the industries that would benefit from your services.
Although emailing local businesses can be done, many businesses frown on what appears to be spam and respond better to in-person meetings.
In-person meetings also allow you to network far deeper than a simple email.
Getting your face and brand out there personally can go a long way, as opposed to an email that might immediately get forwarded to the Spam folder.
Google Business Page
With a Business Profile on Google, you can manage how your drone business will show up on Google Maps and Search.
A Google Business Profile can help people find you and your services online quickly and easily.
Another benefit of having a verified business on Google is that it is twice as likely to be considered reputable.
With a verified business on Google Business Pages, you will be able to:
- Define your done business service area and region
- Post photos from your portfolio
- Receive and respond to customer reviews
Google business pages are also a means for free advertising.
These days, personally building a website, using an all-in-one solution, is quite simple and cost effect.
With a website, you will be able to allocate an entire area for your portfolio, so visitors can see examples of your work. In addition, you’ll be able to post your pricing structure.
While many new drone business owners might frown on putting prices on a website, many successful businesses compare putting your business service prices on your site to fine dining restaurants that post their meal prices online.
Individuals have budgets and seeing package prices online helps them plan accordingly or even get an idea of what to expect for their project, before even contacting you.
Websites are also great ways to display information about your company and any drone-related licenses and/or certificates your company has acquired.
With so many people using Social Media, networks like Facebook and Instagram are excellent avenues of free advertising.
Using your portfolio images, or regular images from drone-related jobs, interest can be sparked in what services your business provides.
8. Register Your Business
Regardless of where your business will be located, it will be necessary (at least in the United States) to register your business.
Registering a business in a particular state is important because of how local laws and taxes can affect the business from state to state.
As we do not offer any type of legal advice here at Droneblog, it is important for you to research how to register your drone business for whichever State you are looking to do so in.
9. Tax (EIN)
Another very important step when setting up and starting a drone business, or any business for that matter, is putting a way to pay your taxes in place.
In the US, you will need to get an EIN (Employee Identification Number). There are various ways to file your EIN, Online, Mail, or Fax.
To learn more about this process, visit the IRS website.
To ensure you pay your taxes correctly, it is highly advisable to hire an accountant or other well-versed business professional to aid you.
10. Drone Insurance
There is a saying that many drone pilots joking keep in the back of their minds, being: It’s not IF you crash your drone, but WHEN.
Drone accidents happen. That’s a reality for drone businesses. Drones crash, thus damaging property or worse. Because of this, drone insurance is extremely necessary when running a business.
When talking about drone insurance, there is liability insurance and hull insurance.
Liability Insurance is in place to protect you financially should you be sued if a drone-related mishap occurs.
Liability insurance tends to have high premiums but also has the highest amount of coverage.
This especially comes into play if, let’s say, your drone crashes into a few cars in a downtown area, cracking a few windshields, as opposed to if it hits and cracks a board in a fence on a farm in a rural area.
In this instance, you as a drone company, are covered by financial ramifications that occur.
When speaking of Hull Insurance, we are referring to insurance specifically for the drone. It protects the drone in the event of a crash or some other mishap while on location for a client’s job.
Hull Insurance is needed because Liability Insurance does not cover damage to your drone.
When doing jobs for clients, you’ll want to have a combination of Liability and Hull Insurance to fully cover your business.
Bonus: Keep up with the Drone Community
As with any business, there are marked trends with drones that may have a positive, or even negative impact, affecting the way we use them in our industry of choice.
Whether being a part of a drone community like ours at DronePilots, or others, being an active member in the drone community ensures you and your company will stay abreast of the trends that affect all of us, and aid in adjusting your business approach to better serve your clients.