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Kara's Corner

How to Transition from a Drone Hobbyist to Commercial Pilot

August 3, 2017

From the moment I first picked up a drone, in mid-2014, I knew I would somehow find the time, not to mention money, to make flying a hobby. For the next two and a half years, that’s what I became a hobbyist pilot with a penchant for sharing some amazing aerial perspectives across my social accounts.

That all changed late last year. I had met one of the judges for Flying Robot international Film Festival at their after-party. As soon as we were introduced, he immediately recognized me from my Instagram account and asked if I would like to work with him on an upcoming aerial shoot of San Francisco’s iconic Embarcadero Center buildings.

Of course I wanted to join him and his team for this epic opportunity. Thus, I started making my transition from a hobbyist to professional certified remote pilot. If you’re reading this, you’re likely wondering how you can do the same. Read on for my recommendations to get legit (licensed, registered, all the legal stuff that is tedious but necessary) plus how to get the word out about the services you provide.

Pass the test

The first step for becoming a professional remote pilot is to take and pass your Part 107 Knowledge exam. Expect to spend 15-20 hours preparing for it if you don’t have a background in aviation. I’ve covered some of my favorite resources for preparing yourself in a previous post. Schedule your exam and pass with a score of 70% or better.

There are few things that irk me more than seeing people advertise their services for far less than market price because they didn’t bother to take this necessary step. You are breaking the law if you accept money for flying your UAV without Part 107 certification.

Get a website

Get a website for your business. If you’re starting out and on a budget, I highly recommend checking out Squarespace. There is a bit of a learning curve but it’s easy to customize. You can easily incorporate your own branding (I currently use a Google font for my logo but am looking at affordable options from Fiverr). The responsive templates make it look polished on all devices including tablets and phones. There’s nothing worse than pulling up a site and not being able to read microscopic text. Don’t give off that poor first impression when people land on your home page.

Make sure people can navigate your site and easily contact you. Install Google Analytics so you can identify which of your social and promotional efforts (more on that in a bit) are driving referrals. Finally, let people know you are Part 107 certified and insured. The latter is imperative because while it’s not required, most businesses will not work with your unless you have a policy.

san francisco-california-drone-commercial-kara murphy

This particular job required $2 million in liability insurance. I only carry $1 million. Therefore, the pilot that hired me listed me on his policy.

Make yourself legit

Like I mentioned above, if you’re going to be professional, you’re going to need to tackle the more expensive and less glamorous but necessary aspects of your drone service business. This means deciding how you want to structure your organization (sole proprietor vs. LLC, etc.), researching how to register your business in the state or country where it’s based, and securing an insurance policy. I personally recommend Costello Insurance while Verifly offers millions in liability coverage, starting at $10 per hour. Find a method that works for logging your flights. Researching and executing these steps is critical to establishing yourself as a professional remote pilot.

Start networking

One of the best pieces of advice I can offer is to reach out to a local professional remote pilot and ask if you can shadow him or her. Chances are, if that person is impressed with your skill set and professionalism, you’ll be referred to clients when there’s a scheduling conflict on their end. I had to turn down four remote pilot gigs when I was out of the country from June 19th to July 14th. One very lucky and trusted pilot in my network got that business in my absence.

Attend professional networking events as often as possible. Introduce yourself and when asked what you do, lead with “professional remote pilot” or “drone pilot” depending on the setting. Always have business cards on hand and try to incorporate some aspect of drone culture into either your logo design or text.

Get social

Some people look down on or ridicule this step but if you want to stand out amongst the sea of certified remote pilots, you’re going to have to build a strong, polished, and consistent presence on both social networks and drone-related forums and Facebook groups.

I know several people who produce far better work than me. However, in spite of all their talent, they’re not getting close to the same number of opportunities as I am. They’re either too afraid of criticism or think they’re above setting up an Instagram account. Twitter doesn’t interest them anymore. Facebook is a time suck (it can be if you allow yourself to get drawn into dead-end arguments). My point: most of my referrals come from my Instagram account and my forum participation has introduced me to a new set of friends who have given me business.

As it is, I worked with Intel, this past Monday, and have another remote pilot gig tomorrow. It took roughly six months to get to this point but hopefully the advice given above will help you get started on the path to successfully securing more remote pilot gigs.

If there’s one last piece of advice I can give it’s this: practice. I’m a mother with several other clients and yet I carve out time almost every single day to fly. I perfect my craft while having fun and capturing an image or video that I may never sell but brings me joy, nonetheless. I can’t tell you what’s currently happening on Game of Thrones but I can get the attention of a major cosmetics company for a bid on an upcoming commercial.

The biggest adjustment to transitioning to professional status is choosing how you spend your time. If you truly love flying drones, as much as I do, the choices you make won’t be too difficult.

Featured image: Greg Clarke and licensed under CC by 2.0


Kara is a Bay Area-based certified remote pilot, marketing consultant, and writer working with clients including DroneDeploy, DJI, Flying Robot international Film Festival, and ACE Hardware. Follow her on Instagram for her more artistic aerial imagery, find out how to hire her here.

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