I was presenting our services to a potential client recently, and afterward, I started thinking about how I would go about finding and vetting a drone pilot. Knowing what I know now, what process would I follow to find the right set of skills and experience for hiring a drone pilot?
The best way to hire a drone pilot is through a referral from someone familiar with their work. In lieu of this, an online search will identify a number of local and national drone companies. Once you find pilots, there are specific questions you must ask to determine competence and reliability. Lastly, be sure to obtain several quotes to get the best value.
How to Find Your Drone Pilot
As the popularity of drones continues to grow, there is an increasing demand for drone pilots. There are a few different ways to find a drone pilot. We’ll review the best ways to find a good pilot.
Drone Pilot Referrals
The number one best way to find a drone pilot is by referral. If you know someone that has hired a pilot for a job similar to yours then getting their positive referral is the best way to ensure you find someone you can trust. You’ll still need to ask the right questions and vet the potential pilot, but in my experience, this is the best place to start.
The drone industry is still relatively new so it’s likely you don’t know anyone that has hired a drone pilot. In that case, doing an online search is also a great way to find a drone pilot. An online search will yield two types of companies: the first are small local drone companies and the second are larger companies that have created a network of drone pilots.
Local Drone Pilot Companies
Any reputable, licensed drone pilot that sells their services will have a website. A website can give you a sense of how reputable and reliable the business is. Is the website well-organized, does it have information about the company and the pilot(s)? You can also generally find a portfolio page to see previous work, and you can find a page that lists pricing for different services. For details on starting your business see our article “How To Start A Drone Business (Part-1)“
Drone Pilot Network Companies
You can also contact a drone network company like Dronebase.com. These companies typically have a large network of pilots and when you hire a pilot the company takes a portion of the fee. Because this is how most drone pilots get jobs when they’re just starting out, you can generally expect to get somewhat inexperienced pilots. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, but it would not be my preferred way to find a pilot. Two well-known companies are DroneBase and Droners.IO
Another option is to post a job listing online. Websites like Indeed or Craigslist typically have a section for drone pilot jobs. This can be hit or miss.
I would also recommend checking online groups of drone enthusiasts. Facebook and Linkedin #Drone or #UAVPilots both have fairly large communities. Even if you can’t find someone directly, you will probably get a good referral.
Finally, you can check with your local aviation authority to see if they have any recommendations for drone pilots in your area.
Questions To Ask Your Drone Pilot
There are a number of questions you need to ask in order to vet your drone pilot. You want to get a sense of their experience doing your specific job, the type of hardware and software they use, and some sense of their mission safety protocols. Here is a list of questions to ask your drone pilot.
What is your remote drone pilot certification number?
At a minimum, they should have a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 pilot’s license. A good understanding of local drone laws and regulations is also important. You can verify their certification on the FAA website. For more details see our article “How to Get Your Drone License: A Complete Guide“
How much drone insurance do you carry?
We always carry a minimum of $1 million liability insurance on any job and that is our recommendation. Unfortunately, there are many stories of employers who hired drone pilots only to find out that they were not insured. If the drone pilot causes damage to property or even injury to people you could have liability as the employer. Always asked to see the Certificate of Insurance, this document will define the liability limits and also the mission constraints.
How long have you been flying drones?
This should give you some sense of their level of experience. If someone’s only been flying a drone for a couple of months, there’s only so much they could have done. I’d recommend a minimum of 6 months of flying experience. Although if the job is more complicated then you’ll want someone with more experience.
What other jobs of this type have you done?
Another way to go about this is to ask to see examples of the pilot’s work to get an idea of their style and skill level. They should have a website with a portfolio page. Also, check to make sure they have examples showing their experience with your type of job. Someone with experience in real estate photography will not be the person to hire for digital terrain mapping and survey.
What drone equipment will you use?
This may be difficult to evaluate because it requires some knowledge of drone technology to know if the pilot has the right equipment. For example, if want a georeferenced map and the pilot plans to use a DJI Mavic Mini, that type of drone is not appropriate for creating detailed maps. Alternatively, if you want indoor aerial video and they plan to use an Inspire-2 drone, then that will create some serious safety issues. I would recommend looking at pictures of the drone they intend to use. Here’s our rule for drones: use the smallest drone that can do the job. For more details see our article “DJI Air 2S vs Competitors: Return on Investment“
Do you have any safety violations or incident reports?
Any drone accident that creates injury or damage must be reported to the FAA Regional Operations Center (ROC) within 10 calendar days of the incident. Reports to the FAA Regional Operations Center (ROC) can be searched at this link. Everyone makes mistakes and sometimes drones just malfunction, so a single incident does disqualify a pilot. However, if there’s a history of problems then we recommend you steer clear of that pilot.
Will they need special flight authorization?
We work in the Washington, DC area, and as you can imagine there are many restricted areas where drones are not allowed. Generally, the airspace around airports, military bases, or federal lands will require special authorization to fly a drone. The authorization process is confusing and creates additional expenses for the job. For example, many areas in Washington, DC require a law enforcement escort for any authorized drone flight. We’ve found that these escorts can cost up to $300. For more details see our article “How To Fly A Drone in Restricted Airspace“
How much will you charge?
Notice we put this question last because in our opinion (albeit biased) it is the least important question. Consider your budget. Drone services can be expensive, so get quotes from a few different pilots before making your decision. Make sure that you agree on a price and schedule upfront.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, qualified pilots will be happy to discuss their background. It’s important to do your research to make sure you find the right person for the job.
Why Do You Need To Hire a Drone Pilot?
It’s important to have a clear sense of what you want from your drone project
- Do you need drone photography for mapping or surveying?
- Do you need to take aerial photographs or video footage of a property?
- Do you need to inspect a structure that is difficult to reach?
- Do you want to determine the earthwork progress on your construction site?
These all require a different set of flying skills and more importantly a different set of post-flight technical skills.
Your job will likely require some level of additional technical skill. Whether it’s video production for commercial advertisement or volumetric analysis of digital terrain imagery.
Be sure to ask about the pilot’s experience with that particular type of work. Also, be sure to communicate your vision for the project to the drone pilot – they need to understand your needs in order to deliver the results you’re looking for.
How Much Can You Expect To Pay?
Drone pilots are in high demand these days, with businesses and individuals alike seeking to capitalize on the unique perspective that drones can provide.
How much do drone pilots cost? For an hourly rate, you can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $250 per hour for drone pilot services. This will depend on the pilot’s experience and the nature of the job. However, many companies have set prices for specific jobs.
We’ll give an overview of what you can expect.
Here’s a table of price ranges you can expect to pay for specific jobs. These are only estimates based on a survey of drone services providers but be wary if the pilot is too far above or below these ranges.
|Aerial Photography||Color graded photos||$100-$300|
|Aerial Videography||15 – 60 sec fully-produced video||$500- $1000|
|Aerial Virtual Tour||360-deg interactive virtual tour||$300-$1000|
|Aerial Site Survey||Job site photos and videos||$150-$300|
|Digital Terrain Mapping||Contour and elevations maps||$500-$1000|
|Aerial Inspection||High-resolution imaging or 3D modeling||$500-$1000|
Make sure that you clearly communicate your needs for the project and your expectations for the final deliverable. Make sure that the drone pilot is able to provide what you want. Each job is different however there are some general requirements that tend to be common in most jobs.
Once the flight is completed and data has been collected what are your expectations? Do you simply want the raw data or do you need post-mission data analysis?
If the product is a video then does the video require color grading? Will the product require music? Do you want additional graphics or text? These activities often require more time and effort than the actual drone flight. For more details see our article “Drone Photography: A Practical Guide“
If the product is a map or inspection then will you need data analysis? Maps can be used to measure distance area and volume. They can also generate contour maps and compute cut-fill requirements. These activities will require varying degrees of technical expertise. For more details see our article “How To Start A Drone Mapping Business“
Once the final product is completed you will want probably some changes. It’s important to be clear upfront how many re-edits are included with the job. We always offer one major re-edit. This ensures the customer will carefully consider any major changes.
The delivery method is often not considered until the end of the project. This is a mistake. If you expect the data to be delivered via Google drive and the pilot delivers the data on a CD then this will be a problem.
Another related issue is ownership of data, as the employer do you have sole ownership of the product, or can the pilot use the data for their own purposes? This is particularly important with photography and video products, so ownership may require an extra cost.
In our company, we prefer to maintain ownership of all photo and video products, although the customer can use the products in any way they choose. But this is something to negotiate upfront with the pilot.
Drone Pilot Horror Stories
When it comes to flying drones, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. And, unfortunately, there are also a lot of bad drone pilots out there. Here are just a few stories of businesses that have hired drone pilots who turned out to be less than ideal.
One business owner hired a drone pilot to take aerial photos of his property. However, when he received the photos, he was shocked to see that they were all out of focus. Worse yet, the drone had crashed into his house during the photo shoot!
In one instance, a drone pilot was hired to capture footage of a wedding. However, the drone pilot lost control of the drone and it ended up crashing into the bride and groom. The drone pilot was fired on the spot.
In another instance, a drone pilot was hired to capture footage of a golf tournament. However, the drone pilot lost control of the drone and it ended up flying into a group of spectators.
And in one final instance, a drone pilot was hired to capture footage of a baseball game. However, the drone pilot lost control of the drone and it ended up flying into the stands and hitting a young child. The drone pilot was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment.
These stories showcase just how important it is to hire a competent drone pilot. So before you hire anyone to fly a drone for you, make sure you do your research and choose someone who is experienced and trustworthy.
Lightwave Aerial is a professional drone service company based in Northern Virginia. Our pilots are all FAA Part-107 certified. We offer a full range of aerial photo/video production services, aerial mapping, and aerial inspection.
At Lightwave Aerial, we are dedicated to providing professional drone services that help our clients achieve their goals. Contact us today to find out more about how we can help you with your next construction project!