Many of us don’t fly drones because we want to get paid but because it’s fun! The thrill of flying, the risk of crashing that makes it all the more interesting and the feeling of exploring the skies is just amazing.
But honestly, who else wouldn’t want to earn a living doing what they love?
Becoming a professional drone pilot is a legitimately viable career option in 2023 and can be a well-paying profession as it rapidly expands into many fields. The demand for drone pilots is increasing day by day and opportunities are monthly opening up for drone enthusiasts.
In this article, we’ll look at the state of the drone industry and the demand for drone pilots. We’ll also go over 7 industries that I think are worth looking into if you’re planning on becoming a professional drone pilot in 2023.
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The association for unmanned vehicle systems international predicts that by the year 2025, at least 100,000 jobs will be created for drone pilots.
Drone pilots are in high demand right now and that demand will only keep increasing in the years that follow. Multiple companies are set to spend over $16 billion on drones in the next 8 years, with advertising agencies, construction, and security firms being among the first.
So yes, drone pilots are in high demand. In fact, according to market research, the drone industry is expected to have a 51.1% growth rate in the next five years.
We’ll get into the specific industries that have a need for the skills of drone pilots later in this article.
So far, we’ve covered the demand for drone pilots and it’s clear that the industry is booming. But can you actually make a career from flying drones in 2023?
It’s a tricky question. The short answer is yes, but there is more to it.
You can definitely make a career out of flying drones. On average, there are more than 1000 open jobs for drone pilots on Indeed at any given time. With this many jobs across the U.S., there are a lot of opportunities for drone enthusiasts.
However, the cost of drones is not really high to get a good drone. And the cost of the FAA’s “Part 107” exam is only $175 (we’ll go over this exam in a minute).
With such a low barrier of entry, the market is extremely saturated with people who have regular jobs and want to make money flying on the side. And so you have to stand out to land drone flying jobs.
The people who make enough money from flying drones to call it a career are usually people with a specific set of skills. Like filming and video editing, 3D mapping, etc… So consider adding different skills on top of drone flying, and apply to jobs that require those skills.
Specialization is key to landing jobs as a drone pilot and standing out.
A really good website where you can check to see what top drone pilots are doing right is droners.io – A simple look at the portfolios of top pilots in there can tell you what works and what doesn’t if your aim is to close clients in the drone industry.
As discussed above, compensation depends highly on the way you package your services. The more value you can add on top of flying a drone, the higher you’ll get paid.
According to Glassdoor, the median drone pilot salary is $58,280/year. There are, however, drone pilots making six figures flying drones commercially. Those usually offer other services on top of drone flying, such as aerial photography and videography, and can also be selling footage of their drone flights to media outlets or stock footage websites.
I have created an entire comprehensive article on how many drones pilots can make depending on what they do exactly.
This youtube video is a good resource if you want to get an idea on the current salary of drone pilots:
As promised, below are 7 industries where drone pilots are in high demand. In this list, we’ll focus on some big trends that I’ve noticed in the drone industry and that I think will open many opportunities for drone pilots in the following years.
Drones are now helping realtors close more deals while saving time.
Aerial shots, videos and even 3D maps help them skip much of the client closing hassle by offering potential buyers a comprehensive view of the property they want to buy.
Potential buyers can then either decide to buy or not, saving realtors a lot of time (which, for most realtors, is literally money).
On average, there are 190 open jobs for real estate drone pilots on indeed and the hourly pay is usually in the $50-$100 range. However, keep in mind that most of these jobs are temporary and usually project-based.
You should also note that many realtors will require video and photo editing skills, as well as a portfolio of your previous work.
There is also the option of starting your own drone business for real estate, which we’ll cover in a different article.
Farmers are now starting to increase their daily yields by using drones to survey their fields and pinpoint which areas of crops need more attention.
Your work here will be mostly straightforward since there is no video editing involved whatsoever. The deliverable you’ll be giving to the farmers after surveying their crops is called a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index map (NDVI).
These maps are used to identify the plants that need more care and there are many software that makes generating these maps a seamless process.
You need, however, to have some basic knowledge of agriculture and farming. Not only will it help you be better at the job, but it will also give you an edge over other drone pilots who choose agriculture as their niche.
This video series on youtube is a perfect starting point if you want to get started in agriculture as a drone pilot:
This is a field where demand is getting higher and higher for drone pilots. A study done by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has concluded that more than 35 states are now using drones in their inspection routines.
Highway inspections, railroads and even car accidents… drones are now helping to cut down the time and money it takes for inspections to be conducted.
Not only do drones capture more data and therefore help prevent more transportation disasters, but they’re also cheap and easy to use.
You typically don’t need to know exactly what you’re looking for since there is software that automatically analyzes the raw data your drone will capture.
So how much can you make in these inspections? Luckily we have a report from the AASHTO themselves stating that, on average, a drone pilot gets paid $100/h in these inspections.
Granted, most of these inspections are done in-house. So the barrier to entry in this industry is higher than in others.
This is also straightforward, just like transportation, but unlike when it comes to inspecting railroads and highways there isn’t software right now that makes cell tower inspections automatic.
You’ll actually have to know what you’re looking for, so this is not for everyone.
This industry is the perfect fit, however, for anyone who is already in telecommunications and has a passion for drones. The hourly pay is also extremely attractive here, it can go from $100/h to $200/h.
There is data that shows how much a tower climb costs a telecommunication company on average. It’s usually between $2000 - $6000 for a single climb.
Keep this in mind when applying for a drone job in the field because it’s good to know just how much money you’ll be saving for your employer.
Another inspection-type job where your work will be mostly collecting raw data with your drone and feeding it to specialized software.
You might be noticing a trend in inspection jobs here, but that’s because, similar to transportation and telecommunications, drones are providing a faster and cheaper way for energy companies to inspect their power lines and solar energy panels.
While you’ll be heavily relying on software if you choose this type of work, technical knowledge in power lines, solar panels and energy infrastructure might be required by the employer.
Though as technology progresses and software gets better, this requirement will soon become less crucial.
According to Droners.io (the website that I linked before), there are some drone pilots doing aerial energy inspections for as high as $150/h, but these rates are freelance rates.
Most work is usually done in-house, and the people who perform these inspections are highly skilled in the field. The average salary for an energy inspector can go as high as $100,000 a year.
This is actually what most drone pilots go for and it’s also my personal favorite. But because of the high number of people applying for jobs here, standing out and landing gigs is increasingly difficult.
The hourly rate here can go from $100/h to as high as $400/h, even higher if you’re a film and cinematography professional.
But just knowledge of drone flying won’t be enough. It’s one thing to fly a drone, but to think like a professional aerial videographer is a whole other thing. You’ll be required to have knowledge and skills in filmmaking and will likely have to provide a professional portfolio of previous work.
So what’s the fastest way to acquire those skills? The answer is simple. Make videos daily.
Get used to filming with your drone every day. Learn and improve your craft, and before you know it, you’ll be really good at shooting professional videos for your clients. You’ll also have a professional portfolio to impress clients with.
That’s right, you can actually start your own drone business – or be what many in the industry call a dronepreneur. (not the best name, I know)
How much you make here will highly depend on you. It will depend on your salesmanship, your business sense and your outreach system for finding and closing new clients…
And because it depends on you and the amount of work you’ll put into your business, your hourly income can range from $15 to $500.
The wonderful story of Jonathon and Beth Russell, who built a drone business from scratch with over 200 clients is worth mentioning here.
I would highly recommend checking them out. The official subreddit for drones is also a good source of advice if starting your own drone business is your aim.
OK, we’ve covered a lot of ground so far in this article. We’ve seen the current demand for drone pilots and went over 7 industries where I believe demand for this type of work will only keep increasing.
So how do you actually become a drone pilot?
You’re going to have to pass the FAA's Aeronautical Knowledge Test (commonly known as the 107 test) in order to be able to fly drones commercially. The FAA views any drone activity that you’re compensated for as “commercial”.
Carefully familiarize yourself with the FAA’s requirements before deciding on a course to study for the test.
After you pass your test you’ll be ready to apply for jobs in all the industries we’ve listed or even start your own drone business.
But as I mentioned before, most drone pilot jobs usually require specific skills on top of drone flying, so a good rule of thumb is to make sure you’re proficient in the field you’re applying for.
As I’ve covered so far in the article, drone jobs are rarely just about flying a drone. You need more skills on top of your drone skills, but that doesn’t make it impossible or difficult.
In fact, it only gives you less competition. If you’re willing to go the extra mile and take the time to acquire extra skills, you’ll be far ahead of the competition. So, in conclusion…
A drone pilot career is worth it in 2023. Especially seeing how demand is growing for it in many fields, you can mostly teach yourself the skills required to land a job as a drone pilot.
One last piece of advice, get into the habit of flying your drone every day if you’re serious about making a career out of it. Persistence is key to improving your craft and you’ll get better faster than everyone else.