Drone Pilot Gigs: Overview of Opportunities and Approach for this New Pilot

According to a recent Fortune Business Insights report, the global commercial drone market is seeing incredible growth and is forecast to continue exponentially growing to $11,295.1 (USD) by 2028. For comparison to where we’ve been recently, in 2020 it was reported the market was sized at $1,915.0 (USD) and saw a growth rate of just over 20%, even with the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the globe. Much of this demand is related to industries innovating to find new ways of doing business with less human-to-human contact to help reduce the spread of the virus.

Having done some quick research before diving into this pursuit head first, reports like this and the alignment with my background in technology, photography, and mapping, areas that are well-positioned to leverage drone operations, were key motivators to jump in. I realize its a long-haul and an tangental career path to the one I have spent over two decades pursuing, but the more I learn about opportunities and applications in this field, the more excited I get.

Crawl. Walk. Run!

Being new to this, I need some experience, both in the more creative aspects of cinematography, editing, video production, and a lot of the things my wife has made a career of, as well as the technical and aerial operations aspects of flying these unmanned systems. There are a ton of resources out there to help, but time at the controls and flying in various environments and capturing diverse footage to edit and learn what works is a huge challenge. Fortunately, Western North Carolina and this area in particular afford a lot of open airspace with gorgeous views to hone the craft.

I have always been a big consumer in the “gig economy” and have gotten a lot of use out of AirBNB, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash over the years. My research in the drone space quickly led me to find there are pilot gig platforms available as well, and I have been pursuing them to see what works and doesn’t. These could be gateway projects and jobs that really help me develop my skills by finding real work applications until I determine the particular niche that I gravitate to. That said, I am keeping my mind open to anything and everything and approaching each opportunity to learn as much as possible from.

Initially, I identified some interesting applications in Residential and Commercial Real Estate (CRE). The visual perspectives achieved through aerial photography and videography are incredible to view and understanding the operations behind capturing those views seems within grasp for a newer pilot, like myself. Aside from my own special interests in capturing the mountain views and waterfalls I find along our exploration of this region, CRE is where I am focusing to build up my skills, gain a better understanding of the business, and begin to establish professional relationships and clients in this space.

With our own property and home as the main subject, I’ve been flying A LOT over my house, taking care to not hit any of the trees and hillsides that surround us, which is some respect is giving me additional challenges in my skill building. I have found that a matured sense of my surroundings and situational awareness coupled with a lifetime of manipulating video game controls of various complexities, has really helped my comfort level flying these very capable quadcopter aircraft systems. My smaller Mini 2 is certainly capable of diminishing out of visual line of sight (VLOS) in a much shorter distance than it is capable of flying and maintaining control over. Regardless, sending a few hundred dollars flying off was a little harrowing at first. I think I needed to gain a trust in the connected systems, controls, and software applications that all work together to make these drones so capable. Technology continues to blow my mind.

Back to the platforms, I have found 3 drone pilot networks that I have been pursuing for as much experience as I can get. They are Drone Base, DroneUp, and Droners.IO. Each of these platforms or networks has something unique about its onboarding, its pilot validation and verification process, and the way it connects their clients with pilots to work with to complete their projects. I will cover each of these, based on my experience so far, in separate posts.

Read Drone Pilot Gigs: The Drone Base Platform (Part 1)

Drone Pilot Gigs: Getting Started

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.