In our last blog post, I made some recommendations for starter drones for those of you that have never flown a drone and want to see what all of the excitement is about. In this post, I want to help you through the process of getting setup to make money using these flying machines! We'll talk about federal regulations, to picking out a drone, to a few opportunities you can pursue to get started making some money. So let's dive in!
In late summer of 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its Small UAS Rule - Title 14 Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) Part 107 - lovingly called Part 107 in the industry. Part 107 outlined all of the rules and regulations for flying drones (defined as unmanned aircraft that weigh less than 55lbs) for "non-hobby" purposes. The general rule of thumb here is that if you are flying a drone with the intention of making money (whether you've been contracted to fly or, perhaps, hope to sell the footage at a later day), then the FAA considers it a "commercial" flight and requires the Pilot in Command (PIC) to be certified under Part 107.
So what, exactly, does Part 107 require? If you're serious about flying drones for commercial purposes, I strongly recommend you read the whole regulation. But the main points are:
- Pilot must be certified
- Aircraft must weigh less than 55lbs (including payload, battery, everything) at takeoff
- Fly in Class G Airspace (stay away from airports!)
- Aircraft must be in visual line-of-sight (you need to be able to see it while flying it)
- Fly below 400ft
- Fly during the day
- Fly under 100MPH
- Don't fly over people, near manned aircraft, or from a moving vehicle
The FAA has done a great job putting together resources online to help people understand the regulations and work through the process of becoming a legal drone pilot. The most intensive part of becoming a certified Small UAS Pilot is the initial aeronautical knowledge test. As someone with an engineering background in aerospace, but with no actual experience flying planes or dealing with the FAA, the requirement to take the knowledge test was incredibly intimidating to me. The test itself is 60 questions and requires a 70% (42 of 60 correct answers) to pass. The questions cover twelve main knowledge areas - everything from small UAS-specific regulations to weather to crew management procedures to airport operations (and so much more).
Again, coming from an engineering background with no flight operations experience, nearly all of this material was new to me. But there are some great (and free!) resources out there to help! The first resource I'd recommend checking out is the official Remote Pilot Knowledge Test Guide from the FAA itself. This guide outlines, at a high level, many of the expectations and format of the process to get certified. The second resource is the FAA's Remote Pilot - Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide. This 87-page document goes into detail about each of the knowledge areas and serves as a great foundation for what will be on the test. The FAA also produced a sample test, but if the material is as new to you as it was to me, going through that test early will not be all that helpful. Instead, I highly recommend Jonathan Rupprecht's website. I can't, personally, speak to his legal prowess, but he has created some great resources for budding UAS pilots. Of particular note is his thorough step-through of the FAA's sample test, explaining why each potential answer was correct or incorrect and other useful tips when preparing for the test.
One final note regarding the certification process is that I can't recommend enough for you to study sectional aeronautical charts. Being able to read those charts, knowing what the different colored lines mean, the differences between dashed and solid lines, and whether altitudes are listed as mean sea level (MSL) or above ground level (AGL) will go a long way to helping you prepare for the test. When I took the exam, roughly 20 of the 60 questions were based on aeronautical charts versus the two or three questions I had on weather. So if you're trying to figure out how to prioritize your limited time, learning everything about aeronautical charts will definitely pay off.
Choosing a Drone
There are many ways to earn money with drones - real estate inspections, general aerial photography, mapping and surveying, and industrial inspections are just a few of the different industries using drones to accelerate their work or remove humans from dangerous situations. Depending on what you're hoping to do with the drone, you may have special requirements. What kind of camera do you need? Does it need to be able to zoom? Do you need an IR or thermal camera? What kind of battery life do you need? Are there additional payloads that you might need to carry? Do you need hyper-accurate GPS data? Are there privacy concerns about the data being collected?
Knowing the answers to those questions will be a great start to finding a drone to fit your needs, and if you need any help with that please don't hesitate to contact us as we'd love to help. But if you're looking for an easy-to-fly drone to get going, a good "Prosumer" option would be the DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 not only comes with a great camera (4k video at 30 FPS? Yes please!), but this latest Phantom also comes with obstacle avoidance to help keep you out of trees or smashing into walls. DJI's app and controller make it incredibly easy to fly and to get those great shots!
Even though drones have become a household topic of late, you may still need to spend some time educating people about the capabilities you can provide. Putting together a demo reel of some of your favorite aerial shots or 3D models generated from drone footage (check out sites like Pix4D or 3DR to see how you can transform your aerial photos into 3D models). You can also look into services like DroneBase that allow you to register as a drone provider and match you with potential clients. You can also look into local festivals and community events that may be good candidates for some aerial videography. Being a certified, professional drone pilot will give you an advantage when talking to the organizers of such events.
I hope that this post has provided a good intro into how you might go about using drones for commercial business. As always, don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. And if you're at the point that you're trying to automate your whole drone fleet, we may be uniquely poised to help you do just that. Until next time!