At Skyward, we make operations management software for companies that use drones, so business managers and drone operators often ask us questions regarding safety, workflow, best practices, and business efficiency. These are great questions that most businesses are focused on—and that our software specifically addresses.

We also receive dozens of questions each week about something altogether different: “I just bought a drone; how do I make money with it?”

This article is a resource for new drone operators who are wondering how to find customers, specialize, and use their drone to make money. This article isn’t comprehensive, but it’ll give you a place to start.

If you’re starting an aerial service business, it’s important to remember that you are providing a service just like any other business. That means you’ll need to find customers who need your ability to operate your drone, its sensors, and—most importantly—transform the data you gather into a useful product: a heat map, a roof inspection, a real estate video.

Also know that competition is real: Drone sales more than tripled last year, and many of those buyers are trying to start their own businesses too. This is why it’s essential to establish yourself as a professional in the short term in order to benefit from the long-term need for aerial services.

If you’re just learning a fly and you’ve never run a business before, this process will take some time. Put in the time up front to understand your customers’ needs and your tools and create expert deliverables.

1. Become an Expert Drone Pilot

The first step to becoming a successful commercial drone pilot is learning to fly your UAV safely as a hobbyist. In our last webinar, 65 Pro Tips (download the recording and companion guide here) Alan Perlman of Drone Pilot Ground School went over a basic checklist for mastering multi-rotor rotation.

  1. Hover at eye-level
  2. Hover and yaw, left and right
  3. Achieve targeted take-offs and landings
  4. Fly a square pattern, with and without yaw
  5. Fly a circle pattern, with and without yaw
  6. Fly a figure-8 pattern, with and without yaw
  7. Achieve a 180-degree inverted landing

2. Know Drone Regulations

Knowing how to fly a drone expertly and safely is the first step, but understanding the regulations is just as important. Every business, no matter what industry or jurisdiction, must follow certain regulations—paying taxes, for example, and filing paperwork for employees or contractors. If you fly a drone commercially in the United States, the FAA requires that you pass a test to show that you understand airspace rules and safe drone operation. In Canada, drone operators must apply for an SFOC for a specific region. The Skyward Airspace Map makes it easy to understand airspace regulations all over the world. Keep in mind that your city and state may have additional regulations regarding drones.

UAV liability insurance isn’t a requirement in every country, but if you’d like to do jobs for other businesses or corporations, they will likely require proof of insurance before they hire you.

3. Create Strong Systems of Accountability

Download our free guide for more detailed information on how to plan and execute drone flights. Put in the hours, and document every flight. Not just for safety’s sake, and to know when maintenance is due—logged hours are a potential client’s best way of gauging your level of experience and ability when considering you as a potential hire.

Develop a general operating manual that goes over every part of your flight plan in the form of an easy to follow checklist.

  • Setting up the launch and landing area? Check.
  • Examine the aircraft for any potential points of failure? Check.
  • Clear the area of any people not participating in the flight? Check.

Having this documentation not only makes your business more legitimate in the eyes of the world, it reduces your risk of accidents, and consequently lowers your insurance rates. You can use Skyward to keep track of your safety record, and show off your robust accountability systems.

4. Identify Your Area of Expertise

Once you’ve established a framework for your operations, the question becomes, “Which market should I serve?” Too many drone operators skip this step before setting up shop. Starting a business is always a risk, and starting a business without having any idea who your customers will be is a recipe for heartache.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Your client base will depend on your drone and sensors, your data processing expertise, your location, and your interests. Are you in a rural area? Agriculture is an industry that has been hungry for drones to provide a cheaper alternative for crop inspections and a slew of other tasks. Take a look at how PrecisionHawk is serving this market, for example, by giving farmers the ability to manage their crops, maximize yields, and monitor their assets. In this case, which involves collecting data on large tracts of land, you would need to invest in a fixed-wing drone, appropriate sensors, and software to transform raw data into reports that farmers can understand and act upon.

Gathering data is one thing and processing it is another question entirely. Software is the key that unlocks the raw sensor information, allowing you to offer your clients more than just aerial photography.

Another opportunity in rural areas is engineering. POWER Engineers uses drones to route high voltage transmission lines. Other opportunities exist in areas that are growing their energy infrastructure, from wind and solar, to oil and natural gas.

If you are in a more populated area, particularly one that is experiencing growth, there are plenty of opportunities in construction. Keep in mind that some cities have restricted airspace, which will require a waiver from the FAA, but that shouldn’t stop you from applying — they are happy to work with commercial pilots who are able to prove their operations are safe and consistent.

The list of use cases for drones in construction is enough to fill its own article, and the number of opportunities will only continue to grow as technology develops: inspections, job site monitoring, surveying, and creating 3D models and real estate photography are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

5. Market Yourself…

Whichever sector you decide to target, keep in mind that these companies are going to want to make sure they’re hiring the most capable, experienced, and accountable pilots. How you market your business is a key part of being perceived this way. Document your flights, log your hours, and build an attractive website that shows off what deliverables you can offer, what insurance you have, and offer customers a range of pricing options to suit a wider set of needs.

Skyward’s Resource Library is full of information on how to improve and manage your drone operation, so be sure to read through our resources to get a more detailed picture of how best to approach this industry. When you feel ready to look for work, our Pilot Finder is a fantastic tool for pilots and businesses to connect, and can help you get started on the journey to becoming a successful UAV operator.

6. …or Take Your Talents to the Job Market

Many business owners find that they spend the majority of their time on tasks that don’t make any money such as accounting, filing forms, completing proposals, managing employees and doing work on spec. Some entrepreneurs are surprised at how much time they spend on sales and marketing. If you find that running a business is too stressful and expensive, consider looking for employment at large fleet operators, such as Talon, Measure, and Uplift, or large companies with drone operations.

Business managers at larger organizations consistently tell us that their number-one challenge is hiring experienced, qualified drone pilots. So if you have solid flight experience, knowledge of the regulations and standard operating procedures, an understanding of data processing, and a great work ethic, your talents will be in demand.

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