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Drone Pilot Career Guide

What is a drone pilot?

Drone pilots remotely control drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They’re used in many areas, like government work, the military, and by private companies. Their job involves handling the drone’s takeoff, flight, and landing and performing specific tasks in the air. They use drones to take aerial photos, surveillance, and even deliver items.

Duties and responsibilities

Drone pilots have a wide range of tasks depending on where they work. Their main job is to fly the drone safely, but they might also control cameras, track targets, or deliver things with the drone. They must know all the flying rules to avoid damaging anything or breaking laws.

Work environment

Drone pilots don’t usually have an office; they work wherever their drones are needed. If they’re editing photos or videos, that might be in an office, but mostly they’re out in the field. This job can involve a lot of standing, moving, and quite a bit of travel, especially for jobs like media or environmental work.

Typical work hours

Drone pilots don’t have set work hours. They usually fly during the day because it’s safer and easier for filming. Most work is freelance, meaning they work for different clients at different times. Flexibility is key, as they need to adapt to various requests and schedules.

How to become a drone pilot

Becoming a drone pilot involves a mix of education, training, and practical experience. Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started:

Step 1: Meet FAA requirements

First, check if you meet the FAA’s requirements. You should be at least 16 years old, have a photo ID, understand English, and be physically and mentally healthy.

Step 2: Prepare for the written test

Study up for the FAA’s drone pilot test. You can find a free training course and a study guide from the FAA. For extra preparation, consider online courses like Drone Pilot Ground School or Udemy’s UAS/Drone Remote Pilot Test Prep for Part 107. These courses offer practice tests, real FAA questions, and even specific training like airspace and chart reading.

Step 3: Get your drone license

To fly drones commercially, you need the Part 107 license. Register with the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA), then take the written exam at an FAA-approved center. You’ll also need to pass a TSA background check.

Step 4: Choose your drone

Pick a drone that suits your business needs. Some drones are great for photography, others for quicker movement. Starting with a simpler model is common, with plans to upgrade as your business grows.

Step 5: Purchase drone insurance

Insurance is important for any business. For drone pilots, this means insuring your drone and related equipment and ensuring you’re covered for potential accidents.

Step 6: Start flying

With your license and insurance sorted, it’s time to fly. Make sure to register your drone if it’s over 0.55 lbs. Practice as much as possible to become comfortable in different flying conditions.

Step 7: Build your portfolio and business

Grow your business by building a strong portfolio. Consider doing some volunteer work at first to get reviews and showcase your skills. Be patient, ask for referrals, and keep building your client list.

How much do drone pilots make?

There are many variables that go into determining how much a drone pilot makes, from company size to experience to education, just to name a few. Those who work as contractors earn as much as $800 – $1200 per day. The payment amount depends on the quality of photos and videos their drone can produce. Some roles require additional expertise and will likely pay higher. 

Highest paying states

  • Virginia: $88,342
  • California: $85,768
  • New York: $83,630
  • Illinois: $82,493
  • Massachusetts: $72,729

Browse drone pilot salary data by market

Types of drone pilots

Drone pilots can specialize in various fields, each offering unique opportunities and challenges:

  • Agriculture: Drone pilots in agriculture collect data, photos, and videos to help farmers monitor crops and manage fields. They are crucial in assessing plant health and planning things like irrigation systems.
  • Architecture and construction: These pilots assist architects and engineers by providing aerial images and videos for 3D renderings of structures. They’re invaluable in large-scale projects, aiding in planning and information gathering.
  • Delivery: Though still emerging, drone pilots in delivery transport small packages directly to specific locations. Companies like Amazon are experimenting with drone delivery, indicating potential growth in this sector.
  • Emergency services: In emergencies, especially medical ones, drones deliver essential supplies. They can reach stranded individuals quickly, providing crucial assistance and communication.
  • Environmental monitoring and conservation: Environmental drone pilots aid conservation efforts by monitoring crops, tracking animal migrations, and surveying coastline changes, such as flood risks.
  • Government and military: These pilots undertake surveillance and military operations. Government roles can also include managing other drone operations and training new pilots, often offering full-time employment.
  • Media: Media outlets use drones to capture news events, weather situations, and large gatherings from above. Drone pilots are also sought after in film and TV for panoramic and creative shots.
  • Insurance claim processing: Insurance companies employ drone pilots to assess property damage and expedite claim processes. Drones collect information and footage, streamlining the claims process.
  • Real estate: In real estate, drones provide aerial photos for listings, giving potential buyers a comprehensive view of properties. Creative and skilled pilots are highly valued for their ability to enhance real estate marketing.

Top skills for drone pilots

Certain skills are essential to excel as a drone pilot:

  • Drone operation proficiency: Being adept at flying UAVs requires patience, concentration, and a steady hand. You should be comfortable with the controls and understand how to maneuver the drone under various conditions.
  • Strong sense of direction: A good sense of direction helps in navigating the drone efficiently. This is crucial for ensuring that the drone reaches its intended destination and completes its assigned tasks effectively.
  • Multitasking ability: These pilots must handle multiple tasks simultaneously, and the ability to juggle them is vital for successful operations.
  • Camera and equipment knowledge: Understanding camera settings and angles is crucial, especially for those involved in photography or videography. Knowing how to get the best shots while managing the drone’s flight adds significant value to your skill set.
  • Strong communication skills: You need to understand your clients’ needs and articulate your capabilities and limitations. This also includes being able to take and give directions clearly, particularly when navigating permissions for specific flight paths or restricted areas.

Drone pilot career path

Your career trajectory as a drone pilot will vary depending on whether you work independently or with an organization. Here’s a look at both scenarios:

Freelancing and business management

  • As a freelancer, you essentially run your own business.
  • Growth involves expanding your client base and exploring different sectors that need drone services, such as real estate, agriculture, media, or construction.
  • Earnings depend on the number and type of projects you secure. As you gain experience and reputation, you can charge more for your services.
  • The freelance path offers flexibility but requires entrepreneurial skills like marketing, client relations, and time management.

Full-time employment

  • Opportunities with government, military, or corporations offer a different career progression.
  • You might start as a drone operator but can advance to roles like project manager, coordinator, or specialist in specific areas like surveillance or environmental monitoring.
  • Working for an organization often provides a more predictable income and potential benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, or educational opportunities.
  • This path could lead to interests in other types of aviation, possibly encouraging you to attend flight school and pursue piloting manned aircraft.

Whether you choose the independent route or full-time employment, both offer unique opportunities and challenges. Your career can evolve based on your interests, skills, and the market demand for drone services.

The field of drone piloting is experiencing exciting growth and evolution thanks to advancements in drone technology. Here’s what this means for the career outlook:

  • Expanded capabilities and uses: Drones are now capable of tasks that previously required costlier, larger technology or vehicles. This technological leap has broadened the scope of work drones can handle.
  • Growing job opportunities: As drones become more versatile, the demand for skilled pilots is increasing across various industries. Job opportunities are not just expanding in number but also in variety.
  • Diverse industry utilization: More industries are recognizing the benefits of using drones. This diversification means drone pilots can find opportunities in many different areas, depending on their interests and expertise.

Employment projections

Job prospects for drone pilots look good over the next few years. One report shows that the advancement of drone technology and the number of uses will increase jobs by 100,000 by 2025. 

Drone pilot career tips

Soft skills and traits

Drone pilots need many of the same traits as airline pilots because they operate equipment flying through the sky. Communication is key whenever coordinating with any other pilots. You must be able to remain calm in stressful situations and avoid panicking. It’s also essential to accept responsibility and hold yourself accountable in cases that do not go right. Learn from mistakes so you don’t repeat them in the future. Flying takes a lot of patience and practice. 

Commonly required skills and qualifications

  • Excellent math and IT skills
  • Ability to communicate well in stressful situations and give and receive instructions
  • Knowledge of maps and navigation
  • Strong interest in aviation
  • Comfort with 3D models
  • An eye for photography and videography
  • Good business understanding if you are managing your own freelance business

Develop a professional network

One of the best ways to boost your name within the industry is to join professional networks and meet others in the same line of work. Virtual and in-person meetups can provide additional insight and tips, plus it’s a great social network that you can bounce ideas off of and hopefully grow your business. Here are a few recommended options:

  • Flying for FlyGuys
  • PrecisionHawk Drone Pilot Network
  • Sold by Air
  • The Academy of Model Aeronautics
  • The Drove Advocacy Network (DAN)
  • Commercial Drone Pilots
  • Women Who Drone
  • Sky Eye Network

Where the drone pilot jobs are

Top companies

  • AeroVironment
  • Citadel Defense Company
  • The Drone Racing League

Top states

  • North Dakota
  • Arkansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Nevada

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • LinkedIn
  • ZipRecruiter
  • Careerbuilder


Can you earn a living as a drone pilot?

Drone pilots can earn a fantastic living as freelancers. It might take some time to build up your business and get your name out there, but there are so many industries looking to expand their networks, and some make as much as $1200 for a day’s work.

Are drone pilots in demand?

Job opportunities for drone pilots are expected to grow much faster over the next decade than other career paths. This specific technology is becoming beneficial in many different industries, and the needs continue expanding.

How do drone pilots find clients?

One of the best ways to grow your business as a drone pilot is to join some professional networks that list jobs and resources and have a way to showcase your portfolio and skillsets. Start a website that lists all your information and how to contact you. And always ask for referrals from your clients.

Is it stressful to be a professional drone pilot?

There are a few industries where drone pilots might experience high-stress situations, like military operations. You may also be faced with tricky weather patterns that make it difficult and stressful to fly. Building a business and managing clients can be stressful for some, but you can set your own schedule and choose which jobs you take on. 

What education do I need to fly a drone?

The only requirements to take your drone pilot license test are that you are at least 16 years old, have a strong understanding of English, and possess a government-issued picture ID. No formal education is required to become licensed.

Do I have to buy my own drone to be a drone pilot?

Some drone pilots work for the US government or military and operate drones owned by the government. A few private corporations hire them to operate their equipment as well. The rest of the freelance and contracted jobs typically require you to provide your own equipment and carry an insurance policy. 

Is there a flying test required to be a drone pilot?

There is no flying test required to become a drone pilot. To become licensed, you’ll need to pass the Part 107 written test, but that’s the only testing requirement.

How much does it cost to become a drone pilot?

The testing fee to receive your drone pilot license is $175. Once you pass your test, you’ll need to register your drone with the FAA. The cost for registration is $5 and needs to be renewed every three years. Any other costs will come from the equipment you purchase or your insurance. 

Can I be a drone pilot as a side gig?

Most drone pilots are freelancers who set their own schedules and rates. It’s a great option for a side gig or side hustle if you want to get started, but you don’t want to commit to it full-time until you’ve had the chance to grow your business.

Is the FAA test for drone pilots hard?

The written test to get your drone pilot license is only 60 multiple-choice questions; you must get at least 70% correct to pass the test. The FAA offers free training and a study guide, plus there are online courses that have a 99% success rate. 

What do drone pilots do?

Drone pilots are utilized in many different industries. Media organizations utilize drones for additional aerial footage. The government and military use drone pilots to help with surveillance and other operations. They are also hired by organizations that want to gather information about land, plants, or animals over time. The options are plentiful.