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Drone Pilot Career Guide

What is a drone pilot?

Drone pilots are responsible for operating a drone remotely. These unmanned aerial systems (UAS), also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), help governmental organizations, the military, and private companies. They handle the operation of these drones, handling take-off and landing, performing required actions, and following the necessary course safely. Depending on the context, drones are used for aerial photography, surveillance, delivering items, and other tasks.

Duties and responsibilities

Drone pilots are used for various work tasks across many industries. They are responsible for navigating the unmanned aircraft and getting it safely into the air and back onto the ground. While flying, they may also be operating cameras, tracking targets, or delivering supplies using the drone. These pilots must know all the rules and regulations while flying so their aircraft and the surrounding structures are not damaged. 

Work environment

Drone pilots will travel wherever their work takes them. There isn’t an office setting for this role unless they edit photos and videos taken while in flight. Most of the work will be done onsite where they are flying. These pilots will be standing and moving as needed. There may be a fair amount of travel, especially if they’re assisting with the media or environmental needs where the work is more spread out.

Typical work hours

There are no typical work hours for a drone pilot. Most of their work is done during daylight hours when taking footage and flying safely is easiest. Companies aren’t typically hiring full-time pilots, so most of the work is done on a freelance basis. That means that they will be working for different clients all the time and will need to be somewhat flexible to handle the requests that come through.


How to become a drone pilot

In order to become a drone pilot, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Make sure you meet the requirements to become a drone pilot

The FAA has some basic requirements that anyone applying for a drone pilot license must meet. You must be at least 16 and have a government-issued picture ID. You must also be able to speak, write, read, and understand English. Finally, anyone taking the test for a license must be in good physical and mental condition. 

Step 2: Take training courses to prepare for the written test

Before taking the test, you’ll want to study the safety information about operating a drone. The FAA provides a free two-hour training course in many locations and a study guide. If you want additional training to guarantee you have all the required knowledge, there are some great online options to consider.

  • The Drone Pilot Ground School offers courses with a 99% success rate in passing the test. You’ll have practice tests and real FAA questions covered in the lessons. There is one-on-one support offered if you have questions, and you’ll have lifetime access to the information.
  • Take the UAS/Drone Remote Pilot Test Prep for Part 107 course from Udemy to learn everything you need to be a successful drone pilot. It’s updated each year with the newest information, so you’ll be able to pass your written exam and learn enough to be comfortable flying your drone for commercial purposes.
  • Dive a little deeper with the Airspace and Charts for Part 107 UAS Drone Remote Pilots course from Udemy. This covers all the sectional charts and how to determine which airspace you can fly in and what approval might be needed. You’ll also learn how to apply for that approval and submit requests to the correct organization. It’s good supplemental training to complete once you feel comfortable flying your drone.

Step 3: Obtain your drone license

Anyone who flies a drone for a commercial, non-recreational, or government purpose must have a special license called Part 107. You must first register with the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (ICARA) to get this license. Once complete, you can sign up to take the written exam at one of the 700 different FAA-approved locations. The test comprises 60 multiple-choice questions; you must get at least 70% correct to pass. You must also pass a TSA security background check to finish the process. 

Step 4: Pick out a drone

Once you have your license, you can select the drone you will purchase for your business. Consider what you want to use it for. Some drones have excellent cameras and take high-quality photos and videos, while others are smaller and quicker for surveillance. Many of these pilots start with a smaller and simpler model with a plan to upgrade in the future once they get their business up and running.

Step 5: Purchase drone insurance

Anyone starting their own business or side gig should ensure they are properly covered for any accidents or unforeseen situations. For drone pilots, the best thing to do is get insured. This means finding coverage for your drone and any equipment attached to it and enough coverage to protect you in case of a crash that damages your property or someone else’s. 

Step 6: Get out and fly

Once you’ve got the license and the insurance, it’s time to start flying your drone. You’ll want to ensure it’s registered unless it is under 0.55 lbs. It only costs $5.00 and needs to be renewed every three years. Practice operating your drone and get comfortable in different types of situations. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will become.

Step 7: Grow and develop your portfolio and business

The best way to grow your business and become successful is to build up your portfolio. Offer to do some volunteer work initially to gain some reviews and some work to showcase. It takes time to grow your client list, but stick with it and ask for reviews and referrals. 


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

Agriculture

Drone pilots can be extremely helpful in agriculture by gathering data, photos, and videos from the air. Farmers can identify if there are failing plants or areas of the fields that need additional work. It makes taking inventory of the land easier and quicker, plus they can take photos and study the land over time. This assists in the planning of irrigation systems and field management.

Architecture and construction

Engineers and architects can utilize the videos and photos from drones to create 3D renderings of the structures they are building. It can assist in large-scale projects, like pipelines and cables. Drones can help gather information and speed up the discovery portion during the planning process.

Delivery

While this is still in the beginning stages, these pilots can be used to help with deliveries. Typically, a maximum load is 55 pounds, but the drones can drop off smaller packages directly at a targeted location. Companies like Amazon are trialing drones for their delivery processes, and this sector could snowball.

Emergency services

Drones can be used for emergency services, especially medical situations, and deliver life-saving supplies. If someone is stranded and requires medical assistance, a drone could find them and reach their location quicker than other methods. It can assist with getting eyes on a situation that might otherwise be impossible to contact and communicate with stranded victims.

Environmental monitoring and conservation work

These pilots can help environmentalists log and track their conservation work. Aerial footage can help measure crops, track animal migrations, and count populations of specific animal species. This can be especially helpful on the coastline to track flood risks and rising water levels. 

Government and military work

The government hires drone pilots to help with military operations and surveillance missions. There are also positions within the FAA to help manage other drone operations and help with training other pilots. This is one of the best jobs if you want full-time work instead of freelance and contract work.

Media

News outlets utilize drone footage often for their news programs. The videos and photos can give visuals to stories about weather events or large gatherings of people. The unique shots you can get from above can tell a story. Drones can replace the need for a news helicopter, which costs a lot more to operate. These pilots are also used in films and television for sweeping panoramic shots and interesting angles.

Insurance claim processing

Insurance companies can hire them to help assess property damage and resolve claims. Significant weather events bring on many claims, and drones can speed up dealing with these claims and getting them closed out. The drones can gather intel and take the footage to attach to the claim, saving someone the trip of having to visit the site in person. 

Real estate

Marketing for real estate listings has evolved over the last decade, and it’s almost expected that aerial photos will be provided for new listings. It helps potential buyers get a better understanding of the layout of the property and nearby structures. The more creative a pilot is in their shots and videos, the more in demand they may be with the local real estate agents. 


Top skills for drone pilots

To become a successful drone pilot, it’s critical that you have the skills to operate the drone and equipment effectively. Flying these UAVs takes patience and concentration. Good pilots have a strong sense of direction and the ability to multitask. Having a good knowledge of camera equipment will help you film and snap photos while flying the drone. 

Communication is also essential. You need to be able to work with your clients, understand what they are looking for, and be able to deliver. Taking direction and giving clear instructions come in handy when getting approvals for specific flight paths and restricted areas. 


Drone pilot career path

Drone pilots are often freelancers who manage their own businesses. There isn’t much room for advancement in this role, but you can grow your client list, and the earning potential is endless. 

If you take a full-time job as a drone pilot with the government, military, or another large corporation, you may have the opportunity to advance within that organization based on experience and available promotions. This may increase your interest in flying other aircraft types and could lead to flight school and working toward becoming a pilot.


The technology for drones has improved so much over the last few years, and the capabilities of these machines have come a long way. Drones can handle work that used to require larger and more expensive technology or vehicles. With these improvements comes a rapid expansion of job opportunities and functions for drone pilots. It’s a great career to get into because many different industries utilize these skills, and that will continue to grow.

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

FAQs

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.