How much money will I make—isn’t this the question, if we’re being honest, that we all ask when courting a new job opportunity? Salary shouldn’t be our only motivating factor, but we all need to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads. The thought of being a professional, certified commercial drone pilot sounds very alluring, but can you make a decent living off a drone pilot salary? And if so, how exactly? Are there any salaried positions out there for drone operators, or is it a strictly freelance/gig economy sort of thing?
These are the questions you need to be answered before handing the boss your resignation letter.
How Much Money Does a Professional Drone Pilot Make?
Who Employs Drone Pilots?
First, we need to address where exactly drone pilots work. A quick check on a few of the leading job boards can reveal what to expect in this line of work. The field is pretty competitive.
The best set of job listings yielded only a little over one hundred jobs. Salary jobs dedicated solely to drone operation are no more than a handful nationwide.
Salaried isn’t the only way to go as a drone pilot though. We can categorize the employment opportunities for drone pilots into three primary categories:
- Industry Professionals Operating Within a Drone Program
- Self-Employed Droneprenuers
- Client-based/Freelance Drone Pilots
We recognize there are other avenues for drone pilots to gain employment beyond these three categories, but these are the most common ways we see drone pilots making a living.
Industry Professionals Operating Within a Drone Program
In industries where drone adoption is growing, companies are establishing programs and full departments dedicated to drone operations.
For example, construction companies are adding in-house drone pilots to their staff to conduct aerial surveys of their work sites. In some cases, larger companies may build multi-person teams of drone technologists to not only fly drones, but to also manage drone operations and process the data collected. In another example, public safety organizations are setting up drone programs and training their officers to fly drones for search and rescue missions. These examples represent opportunities for professionals already established within a certain career field to find work flying drones.
More companies are adopting drone use into their daily operations and finding themselves in need of certified drone pilots. According to a 2018 report by Skyward, some of the sectors where drone adoption is growing most are Construction & Engineering, Government, and Transportation & Warehousing. Our drone jobs guide takes a close look at the top 11 sectors where drone pilots are finding work.
Image Source: UAVAIR, Flickr
The rising demand for certified drone pilots is matched, or even exceed by, a growing supply. The FAA has issued nearly 200,000 Part 107 certificates. With all that competition, this leads many drone pilots to go into business for themselves rather than compete on job boards.
Setting up your own aerial services business is not something to dive into without careful consideration, but it can provide satisfying financial gains for the person who does it right.
If you decide to go it alone, you will need to secure a commercial drone pilot license, business license, insurance, and a client base.
The beauty of setting up your own drone business is that the start-up costs are fairly low. Professional-grade drones are available to just about anyone from dozens of popular retailers. After the small cost of obtaining a Part 107 certification and purchasing a quality unit, a person can start up drone photography/videography business for well under $2,000. Someone comfortable buying a factory refurbished drone can be up for even less.
An additional draw of the droneprenuer avenue is the wide range of drone services there are to choose from when deciding what offerings to incorporate into their business model. More and more industries are beginning to realize the value drones can offer, from agriculture to telecommunications. Droneprenuers can create a business around aerial services such as GIS surveying and mapping, thermal imaging, security surveillance, and inspecting just to name a few.
You can check out an example of a successful droneprenuer and her drone services business in our interview with Rachel Gilmore of Florida ProFly.
Client-based/Freelance Drone Pilots
Freelance and client-based work is a hotbed of drone pilot activity. For freshly minted drone pilots, getting their name on the market can be difficult. Freelance services like Upwork and Fiverr are humming with work for drones operators, but there are drone-specific hiring and listing sites as well.
We’ve put together a list of certified drone pilot directories and national drone networks here, where you can submit your information and get listed. Of these directories and networks, one of the most prolific is DroneBase—an online service that provides clients with vetted drone pilots in their area.
Drone Pilot Salary Expectations
Getting down to the nuts and bolts, let’s see what it pays to fly a drone for hire.
There’s not a straight answer to how much money drone pilots make. Salaries vary based on employer and industry. However, we still want to give you a general idea of what type of income drone pilots can expect.
We did some salary research and tested a number of search terms on Glassdoor, coming away with the following insights:
- “Drone Pilot” shows a median salary of $79K, but it is somewhat inflated due to manned pilots being included Glassdoors calculations.
- “UAS Pilot” was more accurate, but it only brought up three legitimate results. Base pay seems to be $62K – $70K.
- “UAV Operator” jobs resulted in mostly military and government positions with an average salary between $33k – $40k.
Reflecting on the novelty of this career path, The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides no data, signaling that they have yet to begin tracking the industry.
As an independent contractor, pricing appears to be pretty uniform for video and imagery packages across a cross-section of real estate aerial imagery business. Most companies offer packages ranging from $300-$800. DroneBase missions range from $200-$275 on-site.
The salary you can expect as a drone pilot also depends strongly on how you price your services. We’ve written a guest post over at Skywatch.ai on how to price your drone services.
Start Making Money as a Drone Pilot
Drones are the wave of the future of aerospace. Aviation is traditionally a slow-and-steady market, but drone technology is innovating at a rapid pace, propelling the market forward at high speed. Their capabilities and uses are expanding as fast as people can think up uses, and they are poised to revolutionize just about any industry you can think of. Right now is the right time to become a Part 107 compliant drone pilot so you can make an entry into the market before it becomes totally saturated.