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Put your drone to work: how to make money and what you need to know -
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Put your drone to work: how to make money and what you need to know

Photographer Vic Moss legally captured this pre-season image of Empower Field at Mile High, Denver.

Before consumer drones hit the market in 2010, aerial perspectives were only achievable through expensive and sometimes dangerous means: helicopters, small aircraft, parachutes and even balloons. Drones have changed the game by both minimizing the risks and dramatically reducing the cost.

For professional photographers and videographers the new ability to provide clients with a bird’s-eye view or other numerous vantage points otherwise not accessible from the ground, also opened up creative and business opportunities.

Before the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 passed in 2016 (with similar initiatives following in other countries), being able to legally operate a drone for profit meant spending up to tens of thousands of dollars on a Part 333 exemption. Legal counsel was sometimes needed, making it prohibitive for many people to turn their passion into a profession. Nowadays, the startup cost for making money with a drone, including the cost of the drone itself, can be as little as $2000.

Becoming profitable and staying out of legal trouble requires knowledge, patience and preparation.

That said, becoming profitable and staying out of legal trouble requires knowledge, patience and preparation. DPReview spoke with several successful drone business owners to learn more about how they make a living with drones. We asked them how they entered the field, what equipment they use, how they created their business, set rates and made considerations for insurance, plus their for advice for others looking to make a go at flying drones professionally. Their responses and the resources provided below should help kickstart your aerial adventures.

Registration and Certification

Before we delve into the expert advice, it’s imperative to understand that anyone looking to make a profit with their drone needs to follow a few crucial first steps.

It’s important to note that regulations vary by country. Before flying a drone, be sure to check local state and regional regulations to avoid fines or other legal issues. Local drone operators and your local aviation authority are great sources to verify information and seek advice on how to fly safely and legally for business purposes in your region.

For this article we spoke with drone operators in the United States and will be using American laws to outline best practices.

If you’re using a DJI Mini 3 Pro for commercial purposes, you’ll need to register it with the FAA – even if it’s under 250g.

If you’re planning to fly a drone with the intention of making money, you’ll need to register it with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Drones under 250g (0.5 pounds), such as the DJI Mini series or Autel Nano series drones, are exempt from registering with the FAA, but only if flying for recreational purposes. The minute you’re profiting from your drone operation, you’ll need to register it.

Any drone that weighs under 24,498g (55 pounds) can be registered on for $5, which covers it for 3 years. Renewal is available 180 days before expiration. This is the only legitimate site for UAV registration in the US. It is wise to avoid any ads or scams that tend to pop up in search engine results.

The registration info page states clearly: ‘Failure to register a drone that requires registration may result in regulatory and criminal penalties. The FAA may assess civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three (3) years.’

In case you think you can skip these legal hurdles, you’re mistaken. The FAA imposes serious penalties for any would-be outlaws. The registration info page states clearly: ‘Failure to register a drone that requires registration may result in regulatory and criminal penalties. The FAA may assess civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three (3) years.’

As soon as you unbox any drone, your first step should be to register it, if needed, and label it with the number the FAA gives you in return. One company that learned this lesson the tough way was Chicago-based SkyPan. They operated dozens of unregistered drones in Class B airspace, without obtaining permission, and got slapped with a $1.9 million fine before settling.

Beyond registering your drone, you’ll also need to pass the Part 107 knowledge test if you want to make money. This competency test helps ensure that commercial pilots know proper operation and the safety standards to abide by.

Most remote pilots pass their Part 107 exam the first time, which requires an in-person appearance at a PSI-approved testing center. The current cost to get certified is $175. If you fail to pass, you must wait two weeks to retake the exam. In my personal experience, it requires about 10–15 hours of studying to confidently prepare.

If you want to make sure a remote pilot is certified, this database will tell you.

Paid online training resources such as ($149 for lifetime access) or aviation lawyer Jonathan Rupprecht’s free study guide are recommended places to start. Recurrent certification is free and can be taken online, plus renewed, every 24 calendar months.

Once you’ve passed and entered your information in the FAA’s IACRA – a site that allows you to apply for an airman certificate or upgrade your status – you’ll be listed in a searchable database of certified remote pilots. This way, your peers and potential clients can check and see if you’re legit.

Why should you use a drone?

As you can tell, getting into the drone flying business is a complex and sometimes overwhelming process. So what’s the appeal?

First of all, cost savings. In the past, achieving aerial shots for projects and productions typically required either a small plane or helicopter. Besides the risk involved, it was expensive to hire a crew to man both the manned aircraft and the cameras on board.

‘My inspiration was a producer named Ryan Spencer that has been a good friend for years,’ relates Southern-California-based creator Josh Friedman of One Zero Digital Media. ‘I was working with him on a music video shoot in 2013 and he had the original DJI Phantom 1 with a GoPro glued to it that he was getting aerial perspectives from for his music videos. Mainly it was a quick, cheap and easy way to get aerial angles.’

Then there’s the sheer flexibility of a drone. ‘It just happens to be attached to the “tallest and most versatile tripod” in the world,’ says Colorado-based remote pilot Vic Moss of Moss Photography. ‘It opened up even more views I could give my clients.’

Some aspiring manned aircraft pilots also found an outlet when their initial dreams weren’t attainable. ‘I always wanted to be a pilot, but it was not practical being a young single mother, says Joanna Steidle of Hamptons Drones. ‘Drones made that dream a reality with little expense and inconvenience.’

One Zero Digital Media uses voice overs in their reels to attract new clients in the lucrative Southern California real estate market.

Drones are more compact, and can access areas traditional manned aircraft can’t due to size or safety. It’s also worth noting that many drones can operate over a body of water, at close proximity, without creating ripples in the water. This has made them a more budget-friendly, not to mention efficient, tool for productions of all sizes over the years.

What kind of drone do you need?

Drone technology has evolved significantly over the past decade. The original DJI Phantom 1 drone offered only 6 minutes of flight time and required you to attach a GoPro or similar camera to collect footage. Nowadays, drones typically fly for up to 30 minutes per battery charge, offer a first-person view and include a suite of autonomous intelligent flight modes for cinematic-looking footage at the touch of a button.

A majority of the pilots quoted in this article have at least one DJI Mavic 3 series drone in their arsenal. With a dual-camera system, a 20MP Four Thirds CMOS sensor on the main camera and the ability to digitally zoom up to 28X, this is a top prosumer choice. It starts at over $2000, though, which can be cost-prohibitive for newcomers.

A 20MP, Type-1 camera sensor is a minimal requirement for most commercial work. These can be found on DJI’s Phantom 4 series and Air 2S drones, whose models retail between $1299 and $1500 and offer sufficient image quality. Such smaller, stealthier drones can also serve a special purpose.

‘I use the Mini 3 if I know there may be a confrontation or I don’t want to draw attention,’ says Ken Dono, also known as OriginaldoBO. Vic Moss uses a Mini 2 for Category 1 Operations Over People (OOP). The DJI Avata was brought up by both Dono and Joanna Steidle for FPV projects.

Ken Dono, who runs Apex Imaging, charges $300 for one-take FPV videos using a DJI Avata.

While offering up FPV footage may sound enticing, especially the type that goes viral, Dono thinks FPV videos ‘[are] a niche service and won’t replace standard videos. One-takes are very much something a client has to specifically want. They take careful planning.’

What else is essential for a shoot?

There’s a saying that two drones equals one and one equals none. What does this mean? Always bring at least one backup drone. ‘If you only have one with you and it crashes, the shoot is over,’ says Moss.

What else comes in handy, besides a backup drone and proof of Part 107 certification and insurance?

‘For the drone stuff I carry a Hoodman 3-foot landing pad, orange cones, and a couple of Hi-Vis vests,” Moss continues. ‘And I carry a hard hat for the times I’m shooting construction. My most important piece of ‘gear’ is my assistant/Visual Observer (VO). He’s been with me for 20 years, and is indispensable for almost all shoots.’

For my own first commercial shoot I had a VO on hand as well. This isn’t a requirement, but it is helpful if you are operating in a congested area – especially where helicopters and small planes tend to fly about at low altitudes. They also help to make sure the location of your next project isn’t located in commercial airspace.

A VO is tasked with spotting any obstacles, both in the sky, whether it be other drones or manned aircraft, or on the ground, such as power lines, and alerting the person at the controls. A VO does not need to be Part 107-certified in order to perform their duties. However, familiarity with how a drone works and knowledge of the area, including potential hazards to look out for, are definitely helpful in keeping the remote pilot, and any other parties involved, out of precarious situations including collisions.

Aloft is a free service that allows you to navigate airspace.

Apps such as FAA’s B4UFly and Aloft are free and help ensure that you’re not operating in a restricted area. They also alert you to any Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) that crop up during special events such as a major league baseball game or presidential visit. You can also request LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability) free of charge or acquire a waiver for special use cases with the FAA.

Having proof of LAANC or special permission on hand, even in the form of a screenshot on a smartphone, is recommended should an authority figure approach and ask if you really are able to legally fly where you are. There are hefty fines involved with operating while a TFR is active, so if one has appeared in your location it is wise to scrap the shoot and reschedule.

What should you charge?

As evidenced above, there is quite a bit of time, investment, preparation and effort involved with operating as a commercial remote pilot. In addition, there may also be post-processing time involved. Remote pilots deserve to be fairly compensated, but they also need to understand their market.

What is evident is that pricing can vary depending on your location. Josh Friedman of One Zero Digital can charge more for an Orange County, California real estate shoot where houses average a little over $1 million versus a more affordable area in the Midwest. ‘For most of our jobs the aerial work is an add-on to our ground work,’ he says. ‘So we can make an additional $250–$750 to add aerial images/clips for establishing shots, or as an add-on to the ground photography or video work that we do for real estate.

‘We typically make $1000–$1250 per listing for our full service package (interior and exterior photos, video, aerial content, and Matterport 360 tour).’

Outside of Southern California, prices will vary. ‘My hourly for GPS drones is typically $175 per hour not including travel and expenses,’ says Ken Dono, whose home base is Ocala, Florida. ‘My day rate is billed at a 10-hour day for $1750. For FPV, if I am using my custom gear, the minimum is $2500 per day. When it comes to real estate you will just never get these prices, so it wildly varies on the shoot. Typical homes net about $225 per shoot including camera for interior shots.’

Not everyone is interested in real estate, and some have found creating footage for events and news networks more rewarding.

‘I am charging $150 per hour and sometimes tack on a travel fee,’ says Joanna Steidle, who is based out of East Hampton, New York. ‘My half-day rate is $850, full day is $1500. With that comes all Raw footage/photos and at least a one-minute edited video compilation for businesses or events.’

While exposure doesn’t pay the bills, it can be a solid starting point. ‘I spent my first couple of years giving weather-type footage away for free,’ Steidle said. ‘This in turn caused multiple news anchors and meteorologists to follow my work. The major networks now spend between $300 and $1000 for my videos. I only spend about 10–15 minutes putting together clips for news. Production companies pay $100–$300 per second of footage.’

Moss says, ‘For my editing I charge a flat fee of $25 per image for stills, and more when additional editing is needed. For video editing I charge anywhere from $0.50 to $2.50 for a finished second of video. That depends on a soft edit or a full final video.’

As an admin for a number of drone-related forums, however, he has opinions on charging by the hour.

‘Creatives should never charge per hour. They should charge per project, and take end use into account when making up the bid. Base your bid on how long you expect to be on site (1/2 day or full day), but never put the word “hour” in your bid.’ He argues that whether you wind up working less or more, you stand to lose money by charging hourly. You want to be paid for your creative edge, not your time measured out by the hour.

It pays to be insured

In the United Kingdom, commercial pilots are legally required to carry insurance. This isn’t the case in the United States; however, many clients will want a remote pilot to carry a policy. No form of technology is infallible. At any time, a drone can lose its connection and fly off, fall out of the sky or simply not cooperate.

‘Creatives should never charge per hour. They should charge per project, and take end use into account when making up the bid. Base your bid on how long you expect to be on site (1/2 day or full day), but never put the word “hour” in your bid.’

If you happen to collide with a car, building or even a person, you’ll want protection in the form of liability insurance. Where do you get this and what can you expect to pay? It depends. Steidle is a member of Academy of Model Aeronautics and uses the non-profit community to insure her three DJI drones. ‘I have $1 million in liability and full hull coverage and pay about $850 per year in total.’

Josh Friedman uses AVPAC Insurance because they understand the aviation space. ‘We carry a $2 million liability policy on all of our active drones and hull insurance,’ he says. ‘Sometimes we need to up the liability to $5 million, which is a cost that gets absorbed by the client in the contract.’

Vic Moss carries a $5M liability policy with The Hartford. ‘I used to carry $1 million,’ he said, ‘but had a shoot about 3 years ago with a large American car maker, and they required $5 million. I talked with my broker, and he arranged it for that shoot. It’s only about an additional $300/year for my policy, so I kept it. It’s paid for itself each year since by being able to get gigs that required it.’

‘I do strongly recommend having a local agency to work with,’ he adds. ‘To them you’re a customer, but to a large company, you may just be a number. It’s nice to be able to call someone up and know who you’re talking to when the need arises.’ On average, you can expect to pay between $500–$800 per year, per drone, for a $1 million liability policy.

Most drones don’t need a hull coverage policy through an agency. In fact, a program such as DJI Care Refresh offers 1-year protection for a Mavic 3 starting at $239. For those beginning their drone journey on a budget, and not ready for a comprehensive drone insurance policy, SkyWatch offers monthly and even hourly plans for maximum flexibility.

If you’re uncertain about buying an annual drone insurance policy, you can use SkyWatch – starting at $10 per hour.

One final type of insurance? A standard contract. If it’s for a gig under $500, most experts agree that a written email is good enough. Beyond that, a legal contract that outlines expectations, payment and deadlines, that requires signatures on both ends, is ideal. I personally have a template I use, and on occasion a client provides me with their own contract. Either way, it’s wise to get everything in writing.

Final thoughts

‘Yes, there are currently over 280,000 people in the US [alone] with their Remote Pilot Certificate,’ Vic Moss admits. ‘And, yes, the market is saturated. But if you have the skillset, the business acumen, and more importantly the drive to succeed, you’ll make it fine. Bring something to the table other than just a drone. Learn photography, videography, mapping, inspections, etc. What do you currently do as a career? Can drones be incorporated into that field?’

It is always wise to ask questions and listen to what clients really want, and don’t forget to listen to your own inner voice. ‘Think hard about what it is you really enjoy and specialize in it,’ Joanna Steidle emphasizes. ‘I rarely do real estate anymore; I have come to find it very boring. Offer something no other locals offer. For me that has become an artistic type photography style, FPV footage and social media/news exposure.’

‘In order to succeed in a career flying a drone you will most likely do freelance work and own your own business at some point or the whole time.’

‘Be a likable person, create the best product you can possibly create, and follow through with all commitments,’ Josh Friedman advises, ‘especially delivering on time.’

He notes that the life is not all glamorous. ‘In order to succeed in a career flying a drone you will most likely do freelance work and own your own business at some point or the whole time. You will spend more time on the computer dealing with paperwork and e-mails and planning than you will spend flying or editing. Make forms and procedures that make it easy for you to provide proposals, contracts, invoices and receipts.’

His final advice is: ‘Keep an open mind and never stop learning or adapting to the industry’s needs.’

To all the seasoned drone pilots reading this, do you have any other advice for beginners? Let us know in the comments.