In this article, I’m going to cover everything you need to know about becoming a drone pilot. I’ll walk you through the education and training requirements, certification options, and how to find job opportunities in the drone piloting industry.
Drone piloting is a booming industry that‘s only going to continue to grow as technology advances and the demand for aerial footage and data collection increases.
And the best part? You don't need to have a traditional four-year college degree to get started in this field – you do need to be good enough though!
Ever wondered why drone pilots are referred to as “pilots” and not just drone “USERS”?
Handling a drone takes skill… handling it well takes not only skill but also experience – both of which you could easily charge people for.
I'll also give you tips and advice for succeeding as a drone pilot, including how to build a strong resume and how to navigate the job market, so let’s get to it!
Let’s first clearly define what “drone pilot” means. When you hear it, you might think of a military officer operating a stealth drone from a dark, remote location in Kandahar…
The truth is, being a drone pilot is a lot more accessible than that!
A drone pilot is someone who operates unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones for a variety of purposes. These can include commercial uses like real estate photography, agricultural monitoring, or search and rescue operations, as well as creative hobbies like cinematography or FPV (first-person view) racing.
I’d wager one of the most appealing aspects of being a drone pilot for many people is the ability to work outdoors and explore different parts of the world. You could find yourself flying a drone over a beautiful beach at sunset, capturing breathtaking footage of a mountain range from above, or filming a super bowl event.
But look, being a drone pilot is more than just fun and games… You need a high level of technical skill and attention to detail. You'll need to know how to operate your drone safely and effectively, understand the regulations and guidelines set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and be able to troubleshoot any technical issues that may arise (although this bit isn’t crucial).
Whether you're working on a commercial project or pursuing your own creative passion, you'll need to have an eye for detail and a willingness to experiment with different angles and shots – and that takes patience.
On the bright side, you’ll also be riding quite a nice wave as this is a growing industry. The market for drone services is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, with estimates predicting a value of over $100 billion by 2025. This means that there will be plenty of job opportunities available for skilled and qualified drone pilots (that could be you!).
If you're seriously considering a career as a drone pilot, you need to understand the different types of drone pilots and their job responsibilities.
Commercial drone pilots, for example, may be hired by businesses or organizations to perform aerial surveys, inspections, or photography. Hobbyist drone pilots, on the other hand, might fly drones for recreational purposes or to capture footage of their own adventures – which they can sell.
Another type of drone pilot is an FPV drone pilot. These drones are specially designed to give pilots a live video feed from the drone's camera, allowing them to fly the drone as if they were inside it. FPV drones are popular among extreme sports videographers (like skating and snowboarding).
This is all good, it means that whether you're interested in pursuing a commercial career or simply exploring your own creative passions, there are plenty of opportunities available in the world of drone piloting.
This is pretty straightforward in 99% of cases. You don't need a traditional four-year degree to become a drone pilot, but there are certain certifications and licenses you'll need to obtain.
You might’ve guessed it already, but one of the most important certifications for drone pilots is the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Part 107 certification.
This certification allows you to legally operate a drone for commercial purposes (which let’s be honest are probably what you’ll be doing) and requires passing a knowledge test that covers topics like airspace regulations, weather, and emergency procedures.
The Part 107 FAA test is a test intended to give you the final certification for commercial flight with any drone under 55 lbs.The test comprises 60 multiple-choice questions and you need to score at least 70% to successfully pass.
From the moment you begin studying for the test to receiving your FAA remote pilot certification, it usually takes between 4 and 6 weeks.
It’s actually pretty easy, to qualify for the Part 107 certification, you must be at least 16 years old, and be able to read, write, speak, and understand English. You'll also need to pass a background check and have a valid photo ID.
I’ve written a whole article about it here which you can check.
As I said, you only need the Part 107 test for most cases. But there are other certifications and licenses you may need depending on your specific area of focus. For example, if you're interested in flying drones for search and rescue operations, you may need to obtain a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS search and rescue endorsement.
Likewise for things like powerline inspections or LiDar mapping…
In addition to certifications, you should also look at online or offline drone schools. While you don't need a specific degree to become a drone pilot, it's recommended to check some courses out there or go to drone schools.
They can provide you with hands-on training and experience operating drones – which not only makes you good but can also be used to add to your resume.
Usually, these schools offer comprehensive training programs that cover everything from drone safety and maintenance to FAA regulations and commercial applications.
A lot of people get into this thinking they could start making money flying their drones in a few weeks. That’s simply not the case…
If you're starting from scratch, you can expect to spend several months studying for the Part 107 knowledge test and obtaining your certification.
The drone pilot license cost or certification can vary depending on the training program you choose.
A basic training course can cost several hundred dollars, while a comprehensive program at a drone pilot training academy can cost several thousand dollars.
I believe a basic course with free youtube videos on the side will work best for almost anyone.
99% of drone pilots who are making this their career fall in the category of “commercial pilots” – so what do they do exactly?
Commercial drone pilots fly drones for companies in a range of industries for varying purposes. Some companies use drones to take aerial photos and videos for marketing purposes, while other companies use drones for aerial surveillance (although rare).
Commercial drone pilots execute different drone needs for different businesses and get paid in return.
Keep in mind that most companies hire drone pilots for freelance jobs. Many companies don’t employ full-time drone pilots but bring people in to fly drones for specific projects. This can require a significant amount of travel to work sites.
Becoming a commercial drone pilot needs hard work and is not for everyone, but if you stick to the process it’s one of the most fun careers out there – here’s a detailed process that anyone can follow to become a commercial drone pilot:
Don’t skip this step. The first step in becoming a drone pilot is obtaining a drone license.
Why? That’s because selling drone photos or footage without a license could earn you a $1,100 fine from the FAA (on a MINIMUM). The government has mandated that anyone who flies a drone for a commercial, non-recreational, or governmental purpose must have a special license to do so. This license is called Part 107, named after the rule that governs it.
The next thing you’ll want to do is to get yourself drone insurance. It’s cheap and saves you a lot of headaches.
Don’t assume that your home, personal or professional insurance will cover this because most modern policies exclude drones from coverage.
Instead, get a professional drone insurance policy from a company such as AIG or Avion that offers sufficient coverage for any accidents. You should have coverage for your equipment, the cameras that you attach to your drone, and enough to protect you if your drone crashes into something or somebody.
Also, you don’t really need to have yearly insurance. Companies like Verifly offer policies that you can buy on the spot and provide up to $10 million in coverage. There’s even an app that allows you to buy on-location for a fixed amount of time.
If you haven’t bought a drone already, this is where it gets interesting. You’ll want to take your time at this step of the process because your drone choice can either make things very easy for you, or very difficult.
Commercial drones usually cost more than regular camera drones, starting from $1000 and going up to $10,000 or more, the average industrial drone (for mapping, inspection, etc.) costs around $4000.
Usually the larger the UAV and the more cameras and motors, the higher the cost.
I can go on and on about what exactly to look for when choosing your drone, but luckily for you, I’ve already written a very detailed article about that here, go check it out.
Now you’ve done it, you’ve got all your ducks in a row and you’re ready to fly! But not so fast, as this will vastly depend on which industry you’ve chosen.
If you’ve gone for something that’s a little easier to break into, like selling footage or taking real estate photos, then you’re practically set right after you get your part 107 licence and sharpen your flying skills.
If you’ve gone for something a little bit more advanced like surveying and mapping, then not only will you need to pay for several software, but also need to have a relevant certificate of expertise in that area.
Usually, you’ll want to take courses and trainings in fields like that before you start looking for work!
There are a lot of doomsayers in this space, all shouting that being a drone pilot is no longer a viable industry and it’s saturated… well, allow me to clear out the smoke here…
Becoming a professional drone pilot is a legitimately viable career option in 2023 and can be a well-paying profession as it is rapidly expanding into many fields. The demand for drone pilots is increasing day by day and opportunities are monthly opening up for drone enthusiasts.
In fact, demand for drone pilots is growing as we speak and is showing no signs of stopping!
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.
Now it gets interesting. Can you or can you not make a living from this?
Your compensation as a drone pilot will depend 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.
That’s above minimum wage and can guarantee you decent living conditions in most parts of the US. You can definitely make living flying drones in 2023. I have created a comprehensive guide on drone pilots salaries here.
This youtube video is a good resource if you want to get an idea of the current salary of drone pilots:
Alternatively, you can take a look at this chart below which gives us an even clearer picture. DroneAnalyst quizzed 468 drone operators on their revenues with most pilots earning under $50k/year.
So far we’ve looked at whether you can make a drone pilot your main career, but 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.
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|
While there are many aspiring pilots, making the competition difficult and giving you a harder time landing jobs 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.
A drone pilot career is definitely worth it in 2023. Especially seeing as how demand is growing for it in many fields, and you can mostly teach yourself the skills required to land a job as a drone pilot.
You can check my previous article here to see just how in-demand drone pilots are, and how to break into the industry.
One last piece of advice, get into the habit of flying your drone every day once you buy one 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.