How to turn your drone idea into a scalable business
Where should I start?
A great starter drone would be a DJI Spark or Mavic Mini. These are low cost, and let you get the hang of flying RC Quadcopters without investing too much. The cost to repair/replace is also cheaper than say, an Inspire 2. Bumping and crashing into things can (and most likely will) happen. There is a learning curve with drone flying, and it will come naturally to some more than others. Be smart and learn to fly with something that won’t do too much damage if things go bad.
It helps to have a background in photography, surveying, or videography before you decide on a business plan for your drone operation. If you don’t, just get the hang of flying and taking casual videos and photos first. See if you can come up with some ideas or use it in your daily life somehow. Post your projects on social media and get feedback.
If you enjoy flying and want to take it seriously, go and get the FAA Part 107 waiver. This will get you some credibility and the ability to sell your drone work legally. Get at least 100 hours under your belt, and you should naturally gravitate towards your drone niche; or drop the hobby altogether with minimal investment.
Which Path Should I Take?
Maybe you enjoy taking creative photos and want to create art prints with aerial photos. Or, you like to photograph architecture so you explore the possibility of being a real estate photographer, or building surveyor. Perhaps you have an idea for a startup, or know a company who could really use a drone pilot that utilizes thermal imaging in some way.
Focus on leveraging your strengths, and getting really good at what comes naturally and what you enjoy.
Some career paths for drone pilots include: Photographer, Videographer, Crop Duster, Search and Rescue Pilot, Building inspector, Software Developer, Drone Building and Repair, FPV Cameraperson etc, etc.
Keep in mind that whatever field you go into will require additional education, certifications and training. Many employers are willing to train someone with a solid background and a true passion for flying drones. Also, a flight log proving your in-flight time is valuable to have, so keep records.
When Should I Purchase Another Drone?
Once you have experience as a UAV pilot and have received FAA certification, you should think about expanding your fleet. A second drone is good to have as back up, or a different hardware configuration for specialized tasks. You will outgrow the ‘starter’ drones hardware limitations as you become a better pilot. You should have a minimum of two drones, one for back-up, or at least a pilot in your network with a similar drone you can call.
Once you have paid off the first drone from gigs, see if conditions are right to get a second drone. Check for discounts and sales around the holidays, or maybe a used drone if it is not too old. DJI is a solid brand, but there are others such as Autel and Yuneec that may be more budget-friendly. Keep the starter drone as a back-up, if it is still in good shape!
As of this writing, a Mavic 2 or Phantom 4 are great choices for a second drone. Mavic 2 would be perfect for a blogger, travel photographer, or independent filmmaker due to it’s portability. Phantom 4 is great for industrial applications like construction or mapping due to it’s durable design, and ease of take-off and landing in difficult spots (like a boat).
From there you can gather more experience and compare different drones. Maybe you want to film race car videos, so you decide to build your own FPV rig. Or you get hired to do construction project time lapses so you purchase a pair of Phantom 4 Pros. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly. Top pilots fly every day to keep sharp, so practice as much as you can.
Here are some current DJI consumer drones based on utility:
Mavic 2 Pro —
Great All around drone for standard photography and video. Noted for it’s portability (folding fuselage).
Mavic 2 Zoom —
Same as the Mavic 2 Pro but with a zoom lens. Used for more creative shot planning (video and photo)
Inspire 2 —
Holds a selection of cameras ready to plug in, and a variety of lenses as well to nail the shot. 2 people can operate as needed; one controlling the camera gimbal and one to control the drone
Custom Heavy Lift Cinema & FPV High Speed Camera Drones —
These can be custom built or modified for your application
Mavic Enterprise —
Equipped with thermal imaging technology
Phantom 4 RTK —
Set-up with 3D mapping technology
Matrice series —
Heavy-lift drones for construction, police-work and military operations
Customized Industry Specific Builds (i.e., thermal imaging), Mine and Tunnel Inspections, and more.
Of course, you can’t forget the support gear. There are various monitors, stands, RC controllers, et cetera that you will need as you expand your fleet. As your team of operators grows you will need to get headset radios, additional controllers, displays, safety gear and insurance. It helps to have a co-pilot, especially with some of the larger UAVs. At least one back up drone is great to have on standby.
In short; combine something you enjoy and are skilled at with flying UAVs to figure out the best drone career path for you, or startup idea. There are so many use cases for drones and many emerging markets, like drone delivery or 3D mapping. Surely you can think of a way to utilize drone technology to leverage a skill you may already have? This will help you decide how to expand your drone fleet and upscale your business.