Military drones have been in the news a lot lately, thanks to Iran shooting down a very expensive RQ-4A Global Hawk this year. But while they may not always make headlines, commercial drones are taking off, literally and figuratively, all around the nation! What was once a novel hobby for enthusiasts has become a well-paid career path, and as the demand becomes greater, salaries for licensed drone pilots will continue to soar in the future.
So what sort of drone pilot jobs are currently out there?
You’ve Got Mail!
Package delivery is one in the works, with Amazon and Google both on the forefront of leveraging this technology to deliver the goods to your doorstep. The trial testing has been extensive, but Amazon finally revealed their Prime Air drone in June 2019—and it’s spectacular.
No kidding, this is not your hobby shop RC drone; Amazon claims its Prime Air is as “robust and stable as commercial aircraft.” If that’s true, then one thing is for sure… they aren’t going to be sending out a drone costing tens of thousands of dollars to deliver your new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, unless they’ve got all the kinks worked out. That includes how pilots operate these somewhat autonomous vehicles, which is where the legal technicalities come into play. Suffice it to say, a brave new world is around the corner, and now’s the time to get in.
Seems like most movies have some wide panning shot filmed overhead. Maybe it’s of a sublime mountain landscape, or the dazzling skyscrapers of a bustling city at night, or a camera racing along the surface of the sea before panning up to zoom in on a boat or beach…
How do directors get this awesome footage? In the old days, it had to be done via helicopters, planes or even cranes. But now, high-resolution cameras mounted straight onto a drone can quickly grab that breathtaking bird’s-eye shot at a fraction of the cost. That is, assuming the pilot doesn’t crash it into a building or tree. Then your savings go out the window, which is why qualified pilots are so vital.
And it isn’t just major motion picture studios getting in on the action. Now that costs are substantially lower, small businesses are engaging the services of drone operators to film and shoot photos for their ads. It’s certainly a burgeoning business, but the trick is finding qualified pilots who also have a knack for cinematography or photography.
Electric Eye in the Sky
Big Brother took to the skies ages ago, spying down on the masses from reconnaissance satellites and high-altitude aircraft like the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird. Even giant dirigibles, or spy balloons, have been used by the military to aid in intel gathering from high on. But drones are firmly entrenched in ISR by organizations other than just the Armed Forces.
Law enforcement agencies constantly use unmanned aerial vehicles for police work during active shooter incidents, search and rescue ops, crowd monitoring, traffic collision mapping and reconstruction, crime scene analysis and general scouting of hard-to-access areas. Some drones are even equipped with gear which allows for night viewing, or using frequencies to see through walls to allow for 3D reconstruction of unseen interior areas. Gotta love science!
Naturally, anyone operating such drones needs to be pretty heavily vetted through background checks. Let’s face it; if you’re operating a drone to see through a wall, you need to show you’ve got a pretty solid set of ethics!
View From the Top
Any sort of construction takes meticulous planning, and nothing beats having a full aerial view of the building site. Using drones to map out and scan an area greatly helps designers, planners and other involved parties.
But the need doesn’t stop at the drafting board. As construction begins and carries on, drones are able to go up and capture footage to offer a clear picture of the progress and spot any potential problems. Project managers can use all the information they can get to ensure the job is completed on time and on budget. So leveraging drones as a tool to help meet those objectives is only common sense… and seeing how construction is an industry that’ll never die, drone operators are virtually guaranteed work in this industry for a very long time to come.
Drone Pilots Are In Demand!
There are hundreds of uses for drones, and thousands of job opportunities for qualified pilots. In the earlier days of this field, such pilots were scarce and commanded overinflated paydays. Alas, those days are over. The salaries were only so high because of the newness of the concept. But this doesn’t mean a drone pilot can’t make a nice living.
More and more organizations are using drones, so more and more people are becoming interested in being drone pilots. And those with the most experience and skill will always be in demand. And depending on where that operation is—navigating a major city, a small rural town or a vacant lot—could also factor into the salary paid.
If you are not sure which FAA rule you fall under as a drone operator, their User Identification Tool can tell you, so you register correctly.
In many cases, you’ll need to get a Remote Pilot Certificate (an “FAA Part 107”) before flying, which is a good idea if you plan to become a commercial drone pilot later. Suffice it to say, there’s a bit of work and study involved, and it helps to have an expert guide you through the steps to get ready for the certification test.
For those wanting serious academic and/or hands-on training, the Unmanned Vehicle University (UVU) in Phoenix offers a Professional Certification and graduate degrees related to drone operation. Their Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Management Professional Certificate is a 16 credit program, with tuition costs between $3,500 and $4,000.
The UVU programs help prepare students for jobs in both the public and private sectors. Jobs include Project Manager, UAV Business Owner, Technical Writer, Field Engineer, Quality Assurance, Integration Technician, Systems Test Analyst and more. According to the site, salary ranges for drone careers range from $67,500 for maintenance specialists up to $145,000 for top-tier consultants. Sounds like the future looks bright for drone pilots!