Drone Pilot Gigs: Getting Started

Panographic photo above the Nantahala National Forest

As a relative newcomer to this industry, I thought it would be helpful to share with other folks interested in getting work as a drone pilot. Future posts will focus in on my experience so far with the various drone pilot services platforms that I am engaged with.

Panographic photo above the Nantahala National Forest
Panographic photo above the Nantahala National Forest

My initial inspiration that began my drone pilot journey was my wife telling me about her Walking with Bartram project with Backlot Cinema. She mentioned having just one team member who was certified to fly commercially and described some of the work he was doing outside of cinematic videography. I thought it sounded really interesting and she passed along some information that this colleague shared with her. This was my introduction to the FAA Part 107 Certification process.

Drones, or small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), having gained massive popularity with RC enthusiasts, photographers, and others over the years, necessitated some level of oversight into all the various types, sizes, and capabilities of largely civilian aircraft now sharing the sky with commercial and military operations over US airspace. Thus, in 2016, the FAA released its Part 107 guidelines that augment existing fixed-wing pilot guidelines and rules, to apply specifically to sUAS operations and pilots. These rules and regulations are designed to help growing number of drone enthusiasts and commercial operators share the sky with larger aircraft safely.

My wife’s colleague shared his experience with the Pilot Institute, which developed an exam preparation course to help new sUAS pilots understand the rules of the sky, how to identify and understand airspace, how to read charts and maps, weather, and identified a ton of great resources to reference when flying drones. Through a very accessible and understandable series of videos and other reference material, it’s a very comprehensive study they promote as a 14-day course to get your certification. This clicked with me, and having some free time on my hands, I jumped right into the challenge.

Free Pilot Institute shirt for passing score of 90% or better
Free Pilot Institute shirt for passing score of 90% or better

Part 107 certification exams are proctored across the nation at various locations, typically not too far from wherever you may be located in the US. I found a testing facility just over the mountains in Sevierville, TN and a date that was just past the two weeks I would need to follow the course through. It also gave me a couple of day padding to revisit any content I felt I needed more exposure to and take a couple of practice exams. The fee for the course was reasonable and became available for a lifetime, with updates made as frequently as the rules change from the FAA. The course also opened up a great set of resources including additional topics for training and flying drones, great social media groups that are active and supportive, and all the information needed to pursue this for recreational or commercial purposes.

I also had my first drone ordered and awaiting its arrival, a small but very capable DJI Mini 2, the second in this sUAS series from the industry giant. I figured this would be an entry-level drone with a very solid set of specifications, and at a reasonable price. Small, lightweight, and easy to use made getting into the air when it arrived a cinch. The camera is really great, producing very high-definition video of up to 4K @ 30fps and photographing at 12MP. Having purchased a DJI Pocket 2 earlier in the year, this camera and gimbal setup was very similar with that added bonus that I could fly this at great distances and take advantage of some automated features.

DJI Mini 2
My first drone, the DJI Mini 2

Over the two weeks of studying the FAA Part 107 coursework and flying the new drone as much as possible, I was going deeper into also researching how to make a living as a drone pilot. All sorts of new information was being uncovered and really opening my horizons, as well as developing a better understanding of the related complexities to commercial operations. The FAA also requires that drones are registered (for a nominal fee), then there’s a waiting period to actually obtain for certification or pilot ID, which is necessary for a lot of commercial pilot platforms. Then there’s insurance, liability and coverage for equipment, that is available specifically for drones and pilots. There’s also state specific requirements in some cases. Being in North Carolina, which happens to be one of those states, I also had to wait for my official pilot ID to take and pass their knowledge test and be certified to fly commercially in the state.

Lots of things to consider in order to fly commercially, which really means flying for any intent outside of purely recreational purposes. What does this include? Real Estate photography was on my list of pursuits, definitely included. Cinematic videography…yes, if those videos are going to be shared across the internet on most platforms, as those platforms themselves monetize their user-submitted content. Pretty much anything you are posting to YouTube could be considered commercially-intended. What about my own personal portfolio that needs to be developed, showcasing my skills as a pilot and aerial videographer? Yes indeed, my intent is for that work to turn into paying clients and projects.

A lot to unpack, a lot to consider, and a lot to plan and begin working on to get where I am so far. After my two week course, a day to revisit some content, and a lovely drive over the mountains, I sat down in a helicopter tour facility that doubles as a testing site, took the exam, and was immediately notified that I passed. Fantastic! This was merely a first step, followed by submitting information, making requests, and refocusing research into how I would find paying work now, and when that would happen. But, it was official, I was a certified sUAS pilot in the eyes of the FAA, and could begin pursuing this path in earnest.

Published by Chris Tranchina

Aerial Photographer/Videographer, FAA Part 107 Certified Drone Pilot, and Digital Media Professional. My primary focus is capturing landscapes, waterfalls, and points of interest in nature. Its an exciting transition from photographing stills of some amazing sites to capturing their dynamic movement and context in the world.

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