How much money will I make—isn’t this the question, if we are honest, that most of us ask when courting a new job opportunity?
Salary should not be our sole factor, but we all need to keep a roof over our heads and put food on the table.
The idea of being a certified, professional commercial drone pilot seems very alluring, but can you make a nice living on a drone pilot’s salary?
And are there salaried positions available for drone operators, or is it a just freelance/gig economy kind of thing?
Who Employs Drone Pilots?
First, we need to address where precisely pilots operate.
A fast check on some of the leading job boards can show what to expect in this line of work. The field is quite competitive.
A recent search of job listings using the terms like “drone pilot,” “UAV pilot,” and “UAS pilot” yielded a little over one hundred jobs in the US.
Salaried drone pilot jobs are only a few nationwide.
But salaried isn’t the only way to go as a drone pilot.
The employment possibilities for drone pilots fall into three categories:
- Industry Experts Operating in a Drone Program
- Self-Employed “Drone entrepreneurs.”
- Freelance/Project-based Drone Pilots
Drone pilots have other possibilities to get employment beyond these three categories, but these are the most common ways drone/UAV/UAS pilots make a living.
Industry Specialists Operating Within a Drone Program
In enterprises where drone adoption is increasing, companies are establishing programs and full departments dedicated to drone operations.
For instance, construction firms are including in-house drone pilots to their staff to manage aerial surveys of their work sites.
In some cases, larger companies may build drone technologists’ multi-person teams to fly drones and control drone operations and process the data collected.
In another example, public safety organizations are setting up drone applications and training their officers to fly drones for search and rescue missions. These cases represent opportunities for professionals already established within a specific career field to find work flying drones.
More organizations are embracing drone use in their daily operations and finding themselves in the requirement of certified drone pilots.
According to a 2018 report by Skyward, a few of the industries where drone adoption is growing are Government, Transportation & Warehousing, and Construction & Engineering.
Self-Employed Drone Entrepreneurs
The rising requirement for drone pilots is matched or surpassed by increasing supply.
The FAA issued over 100,000 Part 107 certificates within two years of establishing the Section 107 rules for industrial drone operations.
With all that competition, this leads several drone pilots to go into business for themselves instead of competing on job boards.
Starting your own aerial services business is not something to dive into without thorough consideration, but it can offer satisfying financial gains for the person who does it right.
If you opt to go it alone, you’ll have to procure a business license, commercial drone pilot license, a client base, and insurance.
The beauty of setting up your own drone business is that the start-up costs are relatively low.
Professional-grade drones are accessible to just about anybody from dozens of popular retailers.
After the small price of purchasing a Part 107 certification and obtaining a quality unit, a person can start up a drone photography/videography company for well under $2,000.
Someone comfortable purchasing a factory refurbished drone can be up for even less.
An additional draw of the drone entrepreneur avenue is the broad range of drone services there are to pick from when choosing what offerings to include in their business model. From agriculture to telecommunications, more and more businesses are starting to recognize the value drones can provide. Drone entrepreneurs can build a business around aerial services such as thermal imaging, GIS surveying and mapping, security surveillance, and inspection.
Client-based/Freelance Drone Pilots
Freelance and client-based work is an excellent platform for a drone pilot project. For fresh drone pilots, getting their name on the market can be hard. Freelance services like Fiverr and Upwork are waving with work for drones pilots, but there are drone-specific jobs and listing sites as well.
Drone Pilot Salary Expectations
There’s not a specific answer to how much income drone pilots earn.
Salaries vary depending on industry and employer.
Although we still want to give you a basic idea of how much income drone pilots can expect.
We did some Salary study and tested a range of search phrases on Glassdoor, come away using these insights:
- “Drone operator” shows an average salary of $79K, but it’s somewhat inflated because of drone pilots being included Glassdoors estimates.
- “UAS Pilot” was more reliable, but it only brought up three consistent results. Base pay appears to be $62K — $70K.
- “UAV Operator” jobs resulted in mostly government and military positions with an average salary between $33k — $40k.
Reflecting on the novelty of the career path, The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides no information, signaling they have yet to start tracking the industry.
As an independent contractor, pricing appears to be pretty uniform for video and imagery packages over a cross-section of the real estate aerial imagery industry.
Most companies price their packages from $300-$800.
Bottom line, pick your market carefully if you want to make good money.
The salary you can expect to earn as a drone/UAV/UAS pilot depends mostly on how you decide to price your services, the data/image processing expertise you can offer, and the economic value your service delivers for your employer/client.