When it comes to becoming a drone operator, the opportunities are endless.
From photography to surveying to real estate marketing, drones are making their way into various industries. However, in order to truly make a business out of your drone operations, professionalism and dedication is key. Having the right drone, and proper training certification will not always be enough.
If you’re looking to take your drone skills to a professional level, we recommend learning from some of the experts already in the industry.
Join us as Jonathan Elliott of MKE Drones highlights his top pointers for a successful career as a drone pilot.
What Does it Mean to be a Drone Professional?
For Jonathan, being a professional in the drone world goes way beyond simply getting a pay check from an employer or client.
“You have to embrace the aviation industry and that culture of safety that has been important in aviation for decades.”
Drones have grealy innovated the aviation industry; yet, they are still a relatively new technology and there is a lot to learn from professionals who have been flying for over a century. Sharpening your professional drone skills means “honing your craft and really understanding the details of working with drones.”
This includes staying up to date with all aviation regulation, with an extra special focus on drone regulations.
“Staying active with online communities on places like Facebook is a really good way to keep up to date on changing regulations," says Jonathan. “The regulations are not at all straightforward and can easily confuse people - especially since some regulation, such as LAANC isn’t covered in Part 107 training. Remember, YouTube can be full of people who have established a presence, but lack a full understanding of the regulations. These people exist on Facebook too, but there are plenty of other informed people who will call them out and make sure the proper info is there.”
Building a Professional Network
Despite the popularity of drones, most fortune 500 companies are not doing drone video work internally. These types of companies outsource multiple production companies to help out with their video projects. Therefore, giving private drone professionals the chance to seek opportunities.
“The key is to build a rapport with the local production companies in your area so that they know your quality level of work.”
Of course, you must also be easy and flexible to work with. If you don’t know how the production world works it’s okay, rest assured. The important thing is, “to know how to get quality video and not be the one responsabile for slowing down a shoot.”
Jonathan has interacted and ultimately signed contracts with many companies through his local social media presence and website. A good reputation among your local community can go a long way and having your images promoted can help get your work noticed by the right people.
“It’s about getting in touch with the right person and having the opportunity to show them what you can do. Not every company out there needs drones, but for those that do - you have to be there when they need you.”
Landing The Job
Sometimes finding a niche in the drone industry is the way to go. This allows you to focus on particular projects that will help you perfect your skills in that given area.
Of course, branching out to different projects is the best way to expand your client base. However, this may mean that you are taking on tasks in an area that you are unfamiliar with. This could result in you offering your services at a reduced rate so that you aren’t expecting a client to pay for something you might not be able to deliver. It is always crucial to be honest and upfront with the customer on your experience level. They will understand and respect the reduced rate and together you can establish the expectations.
By venturing out to new projects, you will gain experiences in new lines of work, improve your skills, add to your portfolio, and ultimately increase your rates.
It is important to note that working with drones is not a “get rich quick” scheme.
“It takes hard and dedication work to build any business that is successful.”
Jonathan reminds pilots that the best trick is to figure out how to make it sustainable for yourself. “Since Part 107 was released, I have seen companies come and go first hand. This is because they either felt restricted by regulations, weren’t operating in a way that is sustainable, or weren’t passionate enough to keep going for the long haul.” Despite the hardships and setbacks you may face, if you stick true to your passion and abide by the right rules, you are likely to succeed.
You've Been Hired. What's Next?
First thing first, after being hired, it is essential to understand the upcoming shoot’s surroundings.
This means verifying:
- What airspace are we going to be operating in?
- How high are the obstacles nearby?
- Where will my setup for takeoff/landing/operating?
- Where will my emergency landing area be?
Communication with your client is vital. The client must know that you have established your flying parameters. Remember, sometimes there are last minute changes that may take place so you must always be accountable. "Planning is great, but flexibility is also necessary.”
Creating a Competitive Advantage
Jonathan explains that there are 2 approaches here.
- Keep your prices low: Drone services are expensive, having competitive prices will ensure that the work will continue rolling in. Unfortunately, this approach is not the most sustainable and you will likely burn out.
- Set your value and worth: Establish your prices and stand behind them. Strive to maintain those prices by showing customers your worth. While you may lose some potential opportunities to cheaper drone businesses, you will retain customers who come back to you when they realize that paying less means getting inferior work.
Educating yourself as best as you can in all areas involved with drones - regulations and insurance, video/photo shooting, editing, etc. will help you stay relevant over time. Once you have the right education, get out there and start practicing.
“There is no substitute for experience.”
Remain on top of all the paperwork that comes along with operating a business. Once you are a business owner, you must also acquire operations skills that will allow you to complete accounting tasks - especially during the overwhelming times of the year, i.e tax season. As Jonathan puts it, “running a business isn’t all flying in sunny weather on the beach.”
Being a safe drone pilot means more than being compliant when in flight. The first step is to understand what your client expects, then bounce that off of the laws.
Always know your flight area, the airspace, and what is near and below you. Having this knowledge will lead you to obtain the necessary authorizations and will make your flight planning tasks such as: what time of day to fly, involving visual observers, and verifying legal protocol, much easier.
Last But Not Least, Drone Insurance
It goes without saying that drone insurance is mandatory when it comes to being a professional drone pilot. Generally speaking, most clients require $1 million aviation insurance.
General liability will cover your day to day business operations; however, it excludes aviation liability. The aviation policy will cover your drone operations while the aviation policy covers all of the flying activities with your drone.
“Insurance is important as it not only protects me, but it also protects those who hire me. You can run operations as safely as possible, but there is always some risk associated with flying drones, and insurance gives some sense of security that if something goes wrong you will be covered.”
About Jonathan and MKE Drones
Jonathan’s journey with drones was initially sparked due to his interest in photography early on. His experience with digital cameras led him to a career in construction. His responsibilities included documenting numerous projects and he quickly gained access to a Yuneec Typhoon and began taking aerial images.
Jonathan quickly realized the amazing potential drones had, and in 2015, he started his own company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
MKE Drones provides aerial services primarily for companies working in construction, commercial real estate, corporate marketing, and TV production. Jonathan has a broad range of projects as there are a lot of diversity in the drone and production world. Some include missions as simple as shooting a new commercial building surrounded by farm fields. While other jobs are as complex as shooting out of a car moving 45 MPH over a bridge.