Should I Become a Drone Pilot?

EDIT: This article has been updated to reflect the new registration requirements as of Jan 2018.  You are now required to register all drones (hobby and commercial) if they are between .55lb and 55lb.

The drone market has exploded in the past few years, and experts like Goldman Sachs are forecasting continued growth in consumer, commercial, and civil markets; specifically in the construction and agriculture segments.  So it’s no surprise that more and more people are looking at becoming a drone pilot.


More than 60,000 Drone Pilots have been licensed in the US since the FAA requirements went into effect in August 2016 and thousands more are sure to come. Compare that to the ~125,000 commercial manned aviators in the U.S. and you can see that there is a virtual gold rush in the unmanned industry. But, before you rush out and stake your claim to the untold riches of the unmanned industry, it’s best to take a few moments to think about whether or not the Part 107 license is right for you.

Whenever someone asks me, “Should I become a drone pilot?”, I answer with, “Yes, you should but maybe not a commercial one.” There is a distinct difference between the two and it’s an important one to understand before you expend the time, energy, and money to get a license.

Hobbyist Drone Pilot

Becoming a ‘drone pilot’ is simple and can be accomplished by going out, getting a drone, and flying it; no license or registration required.  Do that and…BOOM, you’re a hobbyist drone pilot.  I encourage EVERYONE* to become a hobbyist drone pilot if you have even the slightest interest in doing so.  If done safely and responsibly, it’s a great way to see the world from a perspective different from the everyday.  It’s fun, relaxing, and a great way to meet new people since there are amazing communities of remote pilots sprouting up all over the world.  Drone prices have come down so low that there is an aircraft for just about every budget so it’s easier than ever to get started.  So, anyone who got a drone for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, etc. and just wants to fly around their neighborhood are considered ‘hobbyists’ and simply need to pay $5 to register their drone with the FAA  (if it’s between .55lb – 55lb) and they are ready to go. Just charge the batteries, read the manual, and get flying.  I would also recommend downloading the B4UFly app from the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store as it can provide you with important information about flight restrictions in your area.  Keep in mind, even though you don’t have to be licensed, there are still some rules you have to follow:

  • Fly at or below 400 feet
  • Be aware of airspace requirements and restrictions
  • Stay away from surrounding obstacles
  • Keep your UAS within sight
  • Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
  • Never fly over groups of people
  • Never fly over stadiums or sports events
  • Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
  • Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol

So, flying for fun, not for money, but still following the rules…that’s a hobbyist drone pilot in a nutshell.

Now, what’s a ‘Commercial Drone Pilot”?

Commercial Drone Pilot

A commercial drone pilot is exactly what the name indicates; it is anyone who flies their drone for commercial purposes (meaning they receive money or other compensation for the use of their drone.)  So, if your neighbor wants to give you $20 to take a picture of their roof for their insurance company; that’s commercial use.  Wedding photographer who wants to use a drone to get one cool overhead shot; that’s commercial use.  Guy who wants to take ‘artsy’ black and white aerial photos of the city skyline and then sell prints of those photos on the sidewalk of said city; that’s commercial use.  Basically, anytime you use a drone for the financial benefit of yourself or your company, you’re probably looking at commercial use.  Still unclear if what you want to do is considered ‘commercial’?  Know Before You Fly has a pretty good explanation here.

In order to operate a drone for commercial purposes, you need a Remote Pilot Certificate with Small UAS Rating.  Most people will refer to this as a Part 107 License (named after the section of the CFR that regulates drones) or just a Drone Pilot License.  To get this license, you need to be a human being, at least 16 years of age, and capable of safely operating a UAS.  You also must pass a 60 question exam administered by the FAA.  This exam costs $150 and covers basic Airmanship, Weather, Regulations, Airspace, and other pilot-y topics as well as some drone specific information such as maintenance best practices and UAS flight limitations.  If you’re interested in getting your Remote Pilot Certificate, you should start here!

So, Should I Do It or Not?

While the industry is growing, a low barrier to entry means that the supply of licensed pilots is growing quickly too; resulting in some pilots making as little as $10/hr. while the national average is right around $40,000/yr.

Obviously, having additional skills will increase your marketability.  Some skills/certifications commonly associated with drone work are:

  • Photoshop
  • Adobe Premiere Pro / Apple Final Cut Pro
  • Pix4d
  • Certified roof (or home) inspector
  • Surveyor

Essentially, being able to just fly a drone is good but being able to do something with the video/data you collect is even better.

While making a comfortable living with drones can be challenging, I still suggest that people get the license for a couple of reasons:

  1. The safety and proficiency benefits of preparing for the exam will help all pilots, regardless of whether or not you intend to fly as a full-time career.
  2. Even if you don’t fly full time, people will randomly ask you if you can video something, or take a picture of their house.  In these cases, it’s nice to be able to legally make a few bucks in the process.
  3. It’s only $150 and a few weeks of studying, so why not? 🙂

So, to sum it all up and answer the question we started with; Yes you should become a drone pilot!

 

*’EVERYONE’ = anyone who can fly safely while respecting the rule of law and the integrity of our national airspace.