Every week the Skyward team speaks to hundreds of drone pilots in North America who are flying drones commercially. Early projections estimated that 2.5 million drones would be sold this year alone, which makes for a lot of drone pilots, even if only a fraction of them are flying commercially.

So it’s a little surprising that, among major corporations and drone service providers, finding and hiring qualified pilots remains the major barrier to scaling up—despite internal demand for aerial data across multiple business divisions. 

Where is the disconnect?

Major corporations and experienced aerial service providers are looking for drone pilots with a critical mass of flight hours and experience on specific types of projects, for example, construction sites, insurance claims, or news footage. They may also require data processing expertise. For example, Uplift, a sophisticated aerial data provider with a wide network of pilots, told us that they require pilots to have at least 30 hours of UAS flight experience to join their network. A corporation may also look at insurance policies and testimonials to gauge a pilot’s level of professionalism.

In a market that’s still relatively new, many drone pilots just aren’t there yet.

Part of this will be resolved over time as new drone pilots gain the flight hours, industry knowledge, and data processing to appeal to the most sophisticated drone service businesses and corporations.

We hypothesize that there actually are far more experienced drone pilots out there right now than it may seem to those in corporate America. From our conversations with thousands of drone pilots in the U.S. alone, we’ve seen that most of them are either starting up their own small businesses or going to work for drone-centric aerial data companies. They may not even be aware that job opportunities exist at multinational corporations.

After the Skyward team identified this need, we created Pilot Finder in order to bridge the gap between qualified pilots and the companies that want to hire them. Business and Enterprise subscribers can easily set criteria (location, type of job, flight hours, type of aircraft, etc) and search for pilots who meet their qualifications. Recently we profiled MultiCopter Professional Services in the Caribbean and Airborne Aerial Photography in Texas (whose founder, Justin Moore, is in the cover image), just two of the highly experienced drone professionals in Pilot Finder. Log in to see how it works!

Hire drone pilots, outsource, or both?

Big companies, even ones with their own internal flight ops, may choose to outsource specific, complex, or higher-risk drone flight operations to an expert fleet operator. For example, if an engineering company needs to conduct a flight at night or over people, they can save time and lower risks by outsourcing those flights to a fleet operator that has the appropriate waivers, insurance, and experience flying those types of higher-risk flights.

In our recent webinar, Adding Drones to the Enterprise (watch the recording here), we spoke to Tim Dunnigan from Talon Aerolytics, which conducts aerial inspections for major telecom carriers among other projects, and Kevin Grover from Stantec, a multinational corporation specializing in design, architecture, and engineering. Both companies have embraced a hybrid model in order to meet demand while upholding high internal standards for quality and safety.

They aren’t unique. Most larger operations, and even thriving fleet operators like Talon, will find the greatest efficiencies in having a combination of insourced and outsourced flight crews in order to manage risk, increase geographical coverage, and to cover diverse use cases.

Pro tip: Plan to hire pilots internally—and set standards for outsourced pilots or partners as well. Chances are very good that you’ll need both.

Hiring drone pilots

“We’d love to handle all our flights internally, but we know that’s just not possible,” said Kevin Grover. “Stantec has many different business units that could be using data gathered by drones, so it’s not in the cards for us to do a full-scale drone program. We’re being picky and deciding which areas we’ll address internally. We’re starting with the smaller applications that fit in with our day-to-day professional services.”

Pro tip: Start by focusing your drone program’s resources on the applications that are most closely tied with your existing business model.

“Internally, we’re looking at operators who are very tech savvy and interested in the technology, as well as trustworthy and insurable for the lower-risk applications that we handle internally,” Kevin said. “Hobbyist experience definitely helps. If we’re working in higher-risk situations, we’d subcontract that out to a company such as Talon that has many pilots with in-depth experience.”

Tim Dunnigan says that Talon has been challenged to find pilots who can meet the the business’s high internal standards. They’ve addressed the issue in two ways: by recruiting and hiring veterans and investing in training.

“We find a lot of value in having a U.S. military veteran workforce because of their loyalty, commitment to excellence, and reliability,” Tim said. “Some of our crew members do have a lot of drone experience from their military service—but we found that in most cases, that didn’t actually translate to cellular tower inspections. So we created our 30-day training program. We have a very large training center with two live cellular towers. We put our new hires through our training program so they can prove that their on-paper skill set transfers to the work we do.”

Pro tip: Develop a training program for all of your pilots. No matter how experienced they are, they’ll need to be trained on your company’s aircraft, operation types, and flight procedures.

Outsourcing drone services

Talon’s biggest long-term contracts are with major telecom carriers. “The biggest benefits to outsourcing flight and data ops, especially for corporations, is that the education, equipment, risk management, insurance, and staffing is handled by the outsourcing partner,” Tim explained. “If you’re going to outsource, find an organization that has thorough processes and internal controls and systems, and that has an experienced, highly trained workforce.”

As Talon expands its geographic coverage, Tim is also looking to outsource projects. He mentioned that experienced hobbyists can become valuable subcontractors.

Stantec is also using subcontractors to scale up UAS operations.

“We’ve already begun building master service agreements with a few larger firms,” Kevin said. “We’re outsourcing in order to expand our geographic coverage and to partner with companies that have expertise with specific data methodologies. We need to make sure that our subcontractors are compliant, operating safely, and will meet our insurance requirements. We’ll work with proper firms that have the specific experience we’re looking for.”