How Much Money Do Drone Pilots Make? – this is the question most drone lovers ask at some point or another.
Being a professional drone pilot and making a living doing what you love is very alluring. But how much money can you actually make as a drone pilot?
As per Indeed, the median base salary for a drone pilot is $58,752, with 232 salaries reported. Whereas, as per Glassdoor the average salary for a drone pilot is $79k. The search term “drone operator” shows an average salary of $46,766 for both of them.
There is one problem however, websites like indeed or glassdoor don’t fully reflect the situation of the drone industry. In this article I’ll attempt to go even deeper based on research that I’ve done.
By the end of this, you’ll have gained a clear idea of what to expect in terms of drone pilot salaries.
Let’s start with the first and most important question. Before we see if you can make a fortune flying drones, can you actually make a living first doing it?
As per research, most drone operators earn between $35k - $50k. That’s above minimum wage and can guarantee you decent living conditions in most parts of the US. You can definitely make a living flying drones in 2022.
But you probably don’t want to barely make ends meet with your drone salary. You want to make decent money… Well, stick around because I’ll get into that in a minute. You might want to check my article about how good drone pilot careers are and what are the best choices in terms of payment options.
While there is a lot that plays into how much someone can make from a job, we do have some metrics to answer this one.
The question here shouldn’t be whether drone pilots make good money but rather if they can.
The average salary for drone pilots is in the $42-$58K range. There are however drone operators hitting six figures with their drone services. We’ve even seen some of them closing in on $500k / year from surveys.
Most drone schools will say that making six-figures flying drones is easy but I think they’re only sharing one side of the story. With all due respect to them, but they have vested interest in making more people want to become drone pilots.
Luckily a study done by DroneAnalyst, a drone industry research firm, will allow us to dig deeper into this.
DroneAnalyst quizzed 468 drone operators on their revenues, giving us a clearer picture and an almost definitive answer to the question: how much money do drone pilots make?
As you can see, most drone pilots make less than $50k a year, which is below the $68k median annual salary per household in the U.S.
It isn’t exactly an attractive salary to most people. There are however drone pilots claiming they make over six-figures flying drones, how do they do it?
We have another survey from DroneAnalyst themselves to answer this question, but I’ll spare you the details and tell you exactly where you have the most chance of making over $100k as a drone pilot.
These are 3 industries that I’ve found with strong potential for a $100K/year drone career. I’ve made a deeper analysis on them in this article.
So far we’ve looked at whether you can make a drone pilot your main career, and talked about the chances of having a drone flying job not just as a way to make a living, but as a six figure job.
Now we’ll go even deeper, and look at the hourly pay for drone pilots.
According to Indeed, a drone pilot gets paid $25.73 per hour on average in the US. With the top 10% making over $100/h and the bottom 10% making as low as $10/h.
The hourly pay is hugely dependent on the industry however, and whether it’s freelance work or done in-house (we’ll get into that later in this article).
For instance, most drone work is done by project/contract instead of being a regular full time job. Especially in industries like real estate, agriculture, energy, etc...
The hourly rate in those is usually high, I’ve compiled a table to break down the hour range per industry (*):
|Industry||Average hourly pay (USD)|
|Oil & Gas||$195|
(*) These rates are based on an industry study done by Airstoc
One thing to keep in mind is that drone pilot salaries vary when it comes to location. The rates change across the different states of the U.S.
According to industry research from ZipRecruiter, there are 10 cities where the typical salary for a Drone Pilot job is above the national average. Topping the list are San Mateo (CA), Richmond (CA) and Stamford (CT). Below is a detailed table:
|City||Average hourly wage (USD)|
|San Mateo, CA||$36.02|
|New Haven, CT||$32.01|
|San Francisco, CA||$31.83|
As you can see the hourly wages vary, and there is no definite answer since most drone work is actually freelance work, usually paid by day. Which brings me to how much freelancers make flying drones.
Alright, this is probably what most of my readers have been looking forward to. It’s also what most new drone pilots in the field shoot for.
How much do freelancers make flying drones though is a complicated question since there are many factors at play, but we will go over some facts that I think will give you a clear idea.
On average, freelance drone pilots make $150 per hour flying drones for businesses. With some of them making well over $450 per hour in certain industries like film making and quality inspections.
That’s the short and general answer. But it’s actually more complicated than that.
A lot of people (usually drone instructors) will tell you that it’s definitely possible to fly drones as a freelancer and make well over $100k doing it, and while it’s possible, it’s not the whole story…
The people who make that kind of money flying drones are usually pilots with a specific set of skills geared towards their industry.
To emphasize how crucial learning other skills besides drone flying is to landing well paying gigs as a freelancer, the story of Andrew Dean comes to mind.
Andrew had been working as a waiter after leaving his job with the U.S. Air Force. Five years ago, he invested in drone equipment, as well as a thermography certification course to boost his skill set. This year, the Colorado-based drone pilot is on track to break $200,000.
Andrew spent $1,995 and 5 months to get his thermography certification, he also spent more money and time learning 3D mapping software. But it was worth it seeing as how he’s making six figures with his drone business.
That being said, how much are freelancers actually making right now? To answer that, we have data by Airstoc, from a survey of 700 US-based commercial drone pilots:
Hourly Pricing Rates for Freelance Drone Pilots
Airstoc’s survey gives us a great overview on the drone industry as a whole, and as you can see most freelancers are making around $150 per hour, with the top 15% making $500+ per hour.
But let’s dig deeper, and look at the rates per industry…
Hourly Freelance Rates by Industry
As you can see, oil & gas top the list with Mining and surveying coming second and third. Which is to be expected, because like I said, those who are trained in other skills on top of drone flying earn more.
Real estate for example comes in last because all you need to do is learn some video editing and you’re good to go. This made the barrier of entry extremely low in this industry and the rates naturally dipped.
To further drive that point home, here is another chart focusing solely on drone pilots who also provide 3D mapping services:
On average drone service providers specializing in mapping are able to charge higher rates.
To get more information on the rates of drone pilots, check out this great video by uavcoach:
We went over both freelancers and full time jobs at this point. While it’s clear that freelancers make more money per hour, they usually work on a project basis.
Freelancers make higher rates per hour, but they also aren’t guaranteed their monthly income every month. They usually work on one-time projects while full time drone pilots have a stable income.
So which is better? That remains entirely dependent on you. Some people prefer the higher rate per hour even if it’s not something guaranteed everyday, while others prefer a stable job with predictable income and hours.
That being said, you can choose the third option which is to make your own drone business. Here you won’t have to fly drones and will mostly be a manager who oversees projects.
The potential income here is uncapped and will depend on you. If that’s your aim then I suggest you check the story of Jonathon and Beth Russell, who built a drone business from scratch to over 200 clients.
How do I price my drone services to stay both competitive and profitable? – This is a valid question that comes up a lot.
There is actually no magic number and that can be frustrating for someone just starting out. But fortunately I know of a general rule of thumb that can make pricing your drone services easier.
According to Dronedeploy, most profitable drone businesses say they begin with a per-hour rate that allows them to remain profitable and then adjust the rate up and and down depending on the situation.
After getting a sense for the delivered value and the market in general, most drone owners usually move to a project rate instead of an hourly one. A few variables to keep in mind when deciding on your prices:
Drone pilots who have a wide range in the area where they operate usually do a travel surcharge when the location of their client is past a certain limit. For example, some drone pilots will start to charge travel fees past 25 miles of driving.
Liability insurance is a must-have for drone service providers. A typical insurance policy provides one million dollars of coverage.
However, some industries like mining require more expensive insurance, so consider charging more depending on the type of insurance required by the client.
There are services like Verifly who provide pay-per-use insurance, and are worth looking into.
The industry plays a role of course, perhaps a much more important role than any of the above. Shooting footage for a real estate project is far easier than conducting a solar plant inspection.
Price your services according to the difficulty and expertise required. We’ve talked about rates per industry in the article so far, those should give you an idea.
Deliverables and quality
Deliverables are what matter most to a client, and so pricing should be done accordingly. For example, a 3D mapping or an NDVI map (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) will need to be priced higher than a video editing or short footage.
All the above are simply guidelines to make it easier for you to price your projects.
You should however take into account the various tasks it would take to complete a project and carefully plan them out, estimate how long each task will take and how many resources will take to achieve it and price accordingly.
We’ve looked over the possibility of making a living as a drone pilot, how much drone pilots make and the state of freelancing as a drone pilot.
We’ve covered a lot of ground on this article so far and seen a lot of statistics. In conclusion, I think operating drones and UAVs in general is becoming a more and more attractive career and opportunities in this field will only keep increasing.
So yes, operating drones is definitely a legitimate career in 2022. And if you’d like to learn more about how to become a professional drone pilot, I’ve covered that topic in-depth in this article.