How to make $100K in revenue as a commercial drone pilot

commercial drone pilot money

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says there are 234,605 certified remote pilots in the United States, as of June 30, 2021. How much do these pilots earn? And which industries are paying the most? Let’s find out…

The rise of “droneprenuers” in the US is a clear testimony of the significant improvements in drone equipment and regulatory changes. With the demand for drone services growing, many photographers and other professionals have turned their piloting skills into a profitable small business. But how much do these independent drone service providers and aerial photographers actually make? Commercial drone industry research firm DroneAnalyst has the answers.

Last year, DroneAnalyst (DA) quizzed 468 drone service providers about their revenues. More than half of these survey participants were sole proprietors, with another 20% offering drone services as a part-time business. The survey collected responses from larger drone service providers too, but they made up for less than 10% of the respondent pool.

Read more: ‘Made in USA’ frauds to face $43K fine under new rule

Do drone pilots make good money?

Well, some do. The graphic below answers the question: How much money can a commercial drone pilot make in the US?

As you can see, the vast majority of service providers make less than $50K, which is below the $68K median household income in the US. And according to the research firm:

What is more concerning is this figure hasn’t moved much over the years. The same question in 2018 revealed that 78% of DSPs made below $50K. So, our 2020 data shows some improvements, mostly in the 100-500K field, but not a major shift.

The survey report is also quick to point out that the prices of drones purchased for commercial purposes have increased over the years because brands have segmented products to charge higher prices for commercial users.

Putting this together, we have certainly seen commercial pilots get squeezed.

Related: SkyWatch data reveals DJI, Autel, Skydio market share; escalating drone prices

Interestingly, the survey demographics have also become younger, DA says. This could be indicative of a trend that a few DA respondents in prior years making under $50K have left the industry entirely to retire or enter another industry.

But survey data isn’t a great factor to measure market exits, so we’ll leave it as speculation.

Top 3 money-making industries for commercial drone pilots

So, if you are thinking of building a career in the drone industry as a pilot or looking to pivot in your service offerings, which industries should you target to maximize your income?

The following three are likely to net over $100K in revenues, according to DA:

  • Surveying and mapping
  • Aerial photography and/or videography
  • Utility infrastructure inspection or monitoring

Interestingly, surveying and mapping have been topping the list ever since DA started collecting data in 2016. And you can see why, considering the complexity of capturing highly accurate data, and often specific hardware and software to enable high-value deliverables.

With aerial photography or videography, the trick is to get creative and leverage the client list from past work, if you are an established professional photographer.

Coming to inspection tasks, the DA report says:

Utility firms are the industry’s largest spenders on drones, drone software, and services. However, this income source will be impacted by these firms internalizing much of their drone operations. While that could be a threat to a service provider, they may also be at the top of the hiring list for these firms in the years to come.

Also read: The only drone accessory you need for Mavic 2 confined-space inspections

Do drone pilot networks help?

There are many professional networks like DroneBase and that help drone pilots to find jobs online. While discussions on social media forums generally suggest that these jobs are typically low-paying, they can help newbies to gain experience.

The DA survey data suggests that online networks act as a major source of income for only 10% of commercial pilots, while another 20% rely on them for supplemental income.

Participate in the 2021 survey to win $400

If you found the insights from DA’s 2020 survey helpful, why not consider participating in the 2021 annual survey to share your experiences. Those who participate will be given a summary of the findings as well as a chance to win a $400 gift card!

You can participate here:

Read more: Beyond surveying and inspection: Teaching drones to use precision tools

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