How to Become a Drone Pilot
If someone had told us just a few years ago that we could become a full-time drone pilot one day, we probably wouldn’t believe them. But here in 2023, some UAV jobs will pay a pilot over $100,000 to do just that.
One can become a drone pilot in a very short period of time with no higher education. Drone pilots are in high demand, working in fields that range from agricultural inspection to residential photography. And if they have the right connections, they could even become part of an FPV racing drone circuit.
The real question is, though, can someone make a career out of this? We are here to answer that question. Keep reading for the definitive guide on becoming a drone pilot and making a career out of it.
What Are the Job Prospects for a Drone Pilot?
Drones have a wide range of applications, making them very versatile tools in some of the biggest industries. Primarily, they excel at reaching high altitudes and lending an eye in the sky to professionals for closer examination. They make processes that were formerly quite expensive and labor-intensive a one-man drone pilot job.
Here are a couple of examples of popular drone pilot jobs:
- Aerial photography for films, advertisements, and events
- Industrial equipment inspections
- Aerial land surveys
- Search and rescue missions
- Security and surveillance
- Traffic monitoring
Working in Established Job Vs. Being a Gig Worker
Before someone commits to a career as a drone pilot, they should understand the makeup of the current market. There are some steady jobs that provide a salary or hourly wages. But the grand majority of drone pilots are freelancers.
This means that there’s a good chance a pilot will be a gig worker. The gig economy is essentially a synonym for freelancing. In other words, the pilot will be accepting payment per project or per billable hour.
This means they will be responsible for marketing themselves and seeking out clients. Income may not be steady, especially as they are building their business in the beginning. It may take several months or years to create a solid, profitable business model.
For the purposes of taxation, they will be self-employed business owners. This means they will have to pay self-employment tax, which is much more complicated than withholding tax at a regular job.
This isn’t to dissuade someone from getting their drone pilot license. Freelancing has many benefits over being a regular employee. However, it is something that bears knowing before breaking into the drone business.
How to Become a Drone Pilot
With all that said, let’s look at how one can become a drone pilot. It all starts with obtaining the right training and licensure.
Attend a Drone Pilot Ground School
Drone pilot training is essential for anyone who does not already have extensive experience with flying a drone. Flying a drone looks easy from a distance, but anyone who has tried knows how difficult it is. It requires fast hand-eye coordination and a good sense of the drone’s orientation and altitude.
The drone academy will teach prospective students everything there is to know about drone piloting. This course may include classes on drone maintenance, such as drone propeller replacement.
However, this step is not necessary for a person who has already flown drones for hundreds of hours. As mentioned in the intro, anyone with sufficient skill can become a drone pilot, despite having no official qualifications.
Get a Drone Pilot License
A UAV may seem like harmless fun on the surface, but the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) views them as a potential hazard. They are flying objects that could collide with vehicles or people. A sufficiently powerful drone can climb into active airways, presenting an obstacle for passing planes.
Drone fines start at $1100, and can go up into the tens of thousands of dollars for extreme infractions. We are trying to hit the point home here that it’s a bad idea to fly a drone without a license. Even if the FAA doesn’t catch the offending pilot, they can still find them later if they see the photos they took.
A license is a necessary part of becoming a professional drone pilot, period. The only exception is for pilots who are not flying a drone for non-recreational, commercial, or government purposes.
Drone Pilot License Requirements
At the time of writing, there are some requirements one must meet before the FAA will consider an application. First, an applicant must be a minimum of 16 years old. They must provide a government-issued ID and give proof that they can fully understand the English language.
The application may take several weeks. Since this is a popular license, there is a waiting list that may be quite deep.
FAA Part 107 License and Test
The license in question is the Part 107. First, a prospective pilot needs to get registered with ICARA (The Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application). After that, they register online to take a written exam at the cost of $175.
This is an in-person exam that one must take at a location approved by the FAA. The test is 60 questions that discuss everything concerning drone operation. Applicants must pass with at least 70%.
The FAA provides study guides and online training courses that one can use to prepare for the test. In addition to this, there are plenty of free online resources that will help applicants study. If they have failed the test already, there are study programs that will prepare them thoroughly to pass.
Passing the test is not the end, though. Prospective pilots must get a background check through the Travel Security Administration (TSA) before receiving a certificate. After all this, the applicant will finally receive their certificate.
Find Drone Insurance
Drones are expensive pieces of equipment, and they can damage property even when under the control of a skilled pilot. Many insurance companies now provide professional drone insurance to cover crashes, accidental damages, and any injuries that third parties may suffer.
Insurance may also cover the payload that the drone carries, such as cameras and other costly sensory arrays. This option depends on the pilot, but they will greatly benefit from having it.
Get a Professional-Grade Drone
The drones at Walmart are impressive consumer electronics, but they are not fit for professional work. Professional quality drones can cost several hundred dollars on the low end. This may seem like a lot, but the best drones price out well into the thousands of dollars.
The pilot will decide for themselves which sort of drone they need for their purposes. The costs mainly have to do with how big of a payload it can carry, how fast it can go, and how long it can fly for.
Pilots will need to register their drones with the FAA. Registration lasts three years and costs $5.
With all that done, pilots are ready to work professionally. The sky is the limit (pun intended). Unless a pilot works as a regular employee for another company, they can work on a project basis for any field they desire.
Let’s take a look at some fun options that people hire drone pilots for.
In the past, movie crews needed to hire an entire helicopter for aerial shots. This was very expensive as it required renting a helicopter and the pilot for several hours just to film a few seconds of footage. Thanks to drones, we can do the same thing in a matter of minutes for a fraction of the budget.
Weddings and corporate events can get a very professional bird’s eye view with drone photography. A drone pilot can capture the festivities from all angles, keeping that moment alive forever.
Drones can reach places that humans cannot with the same ease. Factories, oil refineries, water treatment plants, and many more sometimes require drones to inspect the area. Sometimes they have their own staff to do this, but they may hire a freelancer to get the imagery.
A pilot whose drone has an IR sensor will be in high demand. Infrared is an excellent way to detect leaks and heat fluctuations in critical equipment. These industries require frequent inspections, making this a job that will always be in high demand.
Drone Pilot Training
Just as fun as becoming a drone pilot is teaching others the skillset. A drone pilot instructor can teach new pilots how to fly, or lend their drones for recreational flights. Some businesses have an entire fleet of drones that they rent out to tourists or drone aficionados.
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Anyone can become a drone operator in a matter of weeks with no prior experience. There are plenty of high-paying jobs for drone pilots, especially in the gig economy. Anyone interested in this career path should make sure they get licensed and register their drone before working professionally.
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