How to Hire a Drone Pilot

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Various drone businesses have been taking off across several industries. Aside from the staple of aerial photography, drones have started to take over services in construction, manufacturing, mapping, security, and advertising. With an ever-increasing market for drone services, perhaps you thought of getting into the action. But what if you don’t know how to fly a drone? That will not be a problem if you do the next best thing: hire a professional drone pilot.

Why hire a drone pilot?

Being competitive in the field of drone-based services requires knowing all the ins and outs of drone technology and regulations. Having to learn all the technical, logistical, and legal knowledge necessary to even start a drone business can prove to be daunting, especially for an amateur.

Hiring a licensed drone pilot gives your business the benefit of having years of expertise in drone flight at your disposal without having to go through the pains of training. This means that your drone business can start running right away, as you effectively do away with the time needed to train a drone pilot. Most of these for-hire drone pilots or services also come with the complete array of equipment – drones, accessories, cameras, various sensors – so having the right setup for your specific business need is one less thing you need to worry about.

Naturally, hiring a licensed and experienced drone pilot will come with a premium. Industry estimates for the average salary of drone pilots ranges from $30,000 and $50,000, with highly experienced drone pilots able to command a six-figure salary. Having such specialized skills in a niche industry makes drone services more expensive, but you can consider this added cost as a worthwhile investment for your drone business.

What should you look for when hiring a drone pilot?

When you start the search for the best drone pilot for your business, you must keep in mind that not all drone pilots are made equal. You might be looking for someone with a blend of experience and value, or you may be willing to spend more for someone who has a more particular set of skills. The following are the questions you should be asking while looking over your candidates:

1. Does the pilot have a drone license?

The first thing you should be looking for in a commercial drone pilot is whether or not they have a Part 107 remote pilot certificate, or drone license. Starting August 2016, the FAA has made it a legal requirement for all drone pilots conducting commercial activities to have a drone license. This step allows the FAA to enforce a standard of knowledge among all commercial drone pilots, with the aim of making the pilots more responsible and safety-conscious.

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Take note that the Part 107 requirements were enacted more than 2 years ago, and the licenses are only valid for 24 months. This means that a good portion of the licenses issued 2 years ago have already expired. Commercial drone pilots are required to renew their drone licenses by taking a recurrent knowledge test. This means that you should also check for the validity of the drone license of the pilot you are considering hiring.

The fastest way to verify if a candidate is a FAA-licensed drone pilot is to search for the candidate’s name on the FAA public registry. This database contains the names of all FAA-licensed pilots, and also displays their certificate and rating. Take note that there may be delays of up to 90 days between a pilot receiving their certificate and the database being updated with their names. In these cases, giving the candidate the benefit of the doubt will be your judgment call.

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2. Does the pilot have insurance coverage?

Accidents happen even for the most experienced drone pilots. For this reason, it is absolutely essential for a commercial drone pilot to have liability insurance coverage in cases where a mishap may result in property damage or personal injury.

You will need to check if the insurance policy of the candidate is still active, and the coverage amount. Assessing whether the coverage is enough or not will depend on what your particular application is: you will probably not need much insurance if your fly over forests or mountains, but you will feel a lot more comfortable flying over residential or commercial areas with a higher coverage. You may also consider working with the drone pilot to identify the potential risks of your application.

3. What experience does the drone pilot have?

As with most other professions, not all drone pilots are created equal. Even if all licensed drone pilots have passed the knowledge test required for Part 107 certification, there will inevitably be pilots who are better in one aspect or another.

In assessing the experience of a candidate, it is best to start with the most basic skill: drone flight. Highly experienced drone pilots have been flying for more than 3 years, way before the Part 107 regulations were even proposed.  Licensed drone pilots are required to log all the details of their flight, so they should also be able to provide you with the number of hours that they have flown commercially.

After affirming their drone flight experience, you will have to assess if their experience is relevant to your business needs. If you are starting a drone photography business, you are going to need someone with a creative eye – someone who knows how to get good angles and can maximize the capabilities of their drone to capture unique footage. Experienced drone photographers should have a portfolio of their past work that you can request.

If you are aiming for a more specialized industry, then you will need someone with more specialized skills. You may be thinking of doing terrain mapping surveys using LiDAR technology, or thermal mapping of a wide tract of land. In these cases, you will need to hire a pilot who also knows how to operate the extra equipment you will need to offer the service.

With services that have a very small clientele, it will be best to get a list of the projects that the pilot has completed and the clients that they have worked with before. The details of these projects will likely be confidential, but you may consider contacting the past clients to ask for references.

4. Has the pilot applied for a Part 107 waiver request before?

In the course of offering your drone-based service, you are likely to face the obstacle of having to fly at a place or time where you are restricted based on the Part 107 regulations. Your client may have an event that is held at night, or you may have an inspection job in restricted airspace. The FAA has provisions for such cases, and you can work with your pilot to apply for a waiver request for your specific activity.

Why is this such a big deal? Applying for a waiver request is a good litmus test for experienced drone pilots. The pilot needs to provide all the relevant details of your activity, what regulations you might possibly be violating, the risks that may be involved, and all the mitigating measures that you intend to implement. The waiver request process exhibits just how familiar the pilot is with the Part 107 regulations, and how well they can anticipate problems.

The FAA evaluates all waiver requests according to how detailed the requests are, the effectiveness of the proposed mitigating measures, and the experience of the drone pilot. Vouching for a pilot’s level of experience involves submitting of the pilot’s flight logs. These logs should have information on how many hours the pilot has flown a drone, whether the pilot has experienced flying at night, and whether the pilot conducts regular pre-flight safety checks.

Having an approved waiver request under their belt speaks volumes about a pilot’s level of experience and knowledge. To check if your candidate has filed a waiver, you may consult the FAA’s database of granted Part 107 waivers.

5. What equipment does the drone pilot use?

A carpenter never blames his tools but keeps them in tip-top shape all the same. If you hire a professional drone pilot, chances are that the pilot brings in their own drone and accessories. After all, drone pilots will inevitably perform better with a drone model that they are familiar with. Being a package deal, it is also important that you assess whether the pilot’s equipment is appropriate to your needs.

For drone photography businesses, any of the mid-range to high-range drones from some of the popular brands should do. Many drone pilots are becoming partial to the DJI Mavic series due to the size and portability of these drones, but more traditional photographers will probably stick to the DJI Phantom drones. These models can have varying qualities of cameras – it is up to you to determine which camera best suits your business.

For services that require superior stability and control, such as in surveillance or inspection jobs, you might prefer models such as the Yuneec Typhoon H or the DJI Inspire drones. For long distance flights, such as in mapping or other surveys, you may even consider a pilot that has experience in flying fixed wing drones.

More than just the drone itself, a good drone pilot should also have a complete array of the necessary drone accessories. You never know what can happen in the field, so your pilot needs to be prepared with extra batteries, extra SD cards, extra propellers, a landing pad, a car charger, a battery charging hubs, and several other accessories. Having a comprehensive set of accessories is also a testament to the level of preparedness of a drone pilot.

6. Has the pilot taken the lead in similar projects before?

Hiring a drone pilot for the business means letting them take charge of all drone-related matters. Beyond just flying the drone, the pilot will need to be on top of legal compliance, logistical preparations, post-processing of data or footage, safety protocols, equipment maintenance, and waiver requests. This can be an overwhelming amount of work, and you need to make sure that the drone pilot you hire has all the experience and qualifications to handle it.

Where can I find drone pilots for hire?

More and more drone pilots are offering their services, so coming up with a list of candidates should not be a problem. If you are looking for freelance drone pilots, then you may try the usual freelancing portals such as Guru or PeopleperHour.

However, it may be faster and more convenient for you to consult websites that specialize as directories for professional drone pilots, such as, DroneMeisters, or HireUAVPro. These websites provide a search function by location, so you should be able to find a drone pilot right where you are.

SkyTango provides an interesting business model that acts as a marketplace for drone pilots and potential clients. Clients can specify their requirements, search the roster of pilots, conduct their business via the website, and process payments through the website’s secure payment portal.

Final thoughts

With such a fast-paced market for drone-based services, hiring a licensed drone pilot instead of training one from the ground up seems to be a wise business decision.  This strategy allows you to kick off your drone business at a fraction of the time and gives you the instant advantage of experience and knowledge of a seasoned drone pilot.

Before jumping in ahead and hiring a pilot, it is important for the business owner to assess if the candidate is the right drone pilot for the job. The ideal candidate should have a Part 107 certification, experience handling the specific operations your business deals in, and the proper equipment for your industry.

Keep in mind that expertise comes with a price, and an experienced drone pilot will probably command a higher salary. It should all be worth it in the end, as the value of an experienced drone pilot lies in being able to complete jobs with no technical, legal, or logistical problems. Having a licensed drone pilot also helps your business convey a sense of reliability and legitimacy to potential clients.

In any business, the best strategy to grow is to consistently provide high quality products and services. For a drone-based business, having a good drone pilot goes beyond just strategy – it is practically the foundation of the business. Paying for experience may cost more initially, but it is a cost that will pay for itself soon enough.