Drones are pretty rad, and you can get some spectacular aerial footage operating a drone camera, but how can you make a living flying them? Ben Harris, an electronics whiz who runs ECP Aerial Solutions, does just that. About a third of his income comes from building, flying and repairing these airborne wonders.
If you’re curious about how to make money from drones, here are some ace tips from Harris:
Build your expertise
Harris wasn’t a complete newbie when he launched his drones business in 2016. He built his cred as an electronics technician in the Australian Navy, and by working in the mining and renewable energy industries.
“My background in electronics and data processing and visualization helped me understand the fundamentals of how drones operate and how the data can be used in commercial industries,” said Harris.
Harris is a tech jack-of-all-trades. The rest of his income comes from running a cryptocurrency data farm, by building and repairing electronics and from building escape rooms.
Learn on a reliable, safe drone
For those who would like to get their feet wet flying drones, Harris recommends buying a reliable drone such as a Phantom or Mavic. That way you can focus on honing your flying skills rather than wasting your efforts on an inconsistent drone.
“Crashing, repairs and tuning will all come in time, so flying safely is imperative to keeping your business or hobby going,” said Harris, who is 33 and lives in Columbia, Missouri.
“It’s not a matter if your drone might fail on flight one day, but when and how you can mitigate that risk.”
Harris looked into how small unmanned aerial systems could impact safety and efficiency in the workplace. He then spent several years building and commissioning his own drones to test out. Last year he obtained a pilot certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration and started promoting his services.
To get a commercial drone pilot certificate, you’ll need to pass a knowledge test. The two-hour, 60-question test is known to be difficult and you’ll need to put on your study hat to pass.
Don’t forget the insurance
While drone insurance isn’t required if you’re flying a drone for personal use, it comes in handy if you're a pro in case your drone suffers a malfunction such as losing power and crashing, or gets tangled up in a telephone wire. Harris is FAA licensed and has both liability and hull insurance for the flights he either pilots or acts as the remote pilot in command.
Stay up to date
Harris finds one of the challenges in the drone business is the constant changes in hardware, software and operational requirements.
“The constant advancements in camera technology has led me to upgrades, which have paid for themselves,” said Harris, who has spent anywhere from $10 to $1,000 and more on upgrades.
It certainly helps to have technical expertise, and making these upgrades on your own can save you a lot of money. Because Harris has a background in electronics, he’s been able to make his own repairs and updates.
Find your niche
While Harris provides more general drone services such 360-degree videography, 3-D models and virtual reality, Harris manages to land clients by focusing on a few areas, particularly in doing agricultural inspections.
There is a lot of competition in areas such as real estate and videography, but not a great deal of competition in the more data-heavy applications like inspection, point-cloud mapping, high-precision mapping and agriculture, said Harris.
“These data-heavy applications usually require specialized or modified sensors to achieve good results,” said Harris.
Come up with price packages
Harris charges anywhere from $650 a day for operating a Phantom 4 Pro; $1,500 to $3,000 a day to operate a Matrice 600, which has a spotter and dual operator; and $2 an acre for agricultural mapping, which includes post-processing of data gathered on-site after landing.
Harris charges based on how difficult the job is going to be, how far he’ll need to fly the drone and the risk to personal property and equipment. He even has a risk matrix that guides him through safety procedures and hazard management before flying.
“The bigger the drone, the more risk management I have to take on, making it far more expensive to operate,” said Harris.
Harris finds clients by reaching out to potential customers via email, by referrals and hobnobbing at networking events and online drone sites and targeting customers as the industries are available with changing seasons. For instance, while drone videography and photogrammetry work comes year-round, work in the agricultural fields is available in the spring and summer.
While part of Harris’s current income comes from drones, he hopes to increase revenue next year though a better agricultural data program. Earning money by flying drones isn’t easy, but if you have the technical chops and are willing to invest the time, you could earn some serious beans.