You have 0 items in your cart. Please complete the order.

Buy Now!

How Much Do Drone Pilots Really Make (and Other Findings) from Our 2019 Drone Industry Survey

BY Alan Perlman
19 August 2019

It’s been three years since the FAA’s Part 107 regulations went into effect.

In our 2019 drone industry survey, we sought out to understand how the U.S. drone industry is doing — are pilots making money? What industries are they in? How often are they flying?

We received 1,389 responses, and over the last couple of months have been pouring through the data.

In this summary report, you’ll see data from the professional drone pilot community on:

  • How much money drone pilots are making
  • Industries where drone pilots are finding work
  • The breakdown of pilots flying for themselves vs. for an organization
  • What percentage of drone pilots are renewing their Part 107 certificate
  • And more

All survey respondents are alumni of our Drone Pilot Ground School test prep course for the U.S. Part 107 exam. If you’re one of the people who took the survey, THANK YOU for participating.

Also, congrats to the three winners of the $107 Amazon gift cards that we raffled off to survey participants: Bill in Illinois, Chris in Maryland, and Trevor in Kansas. You’ve each been emailed!

And finally, we want to give a big hat tip to Chris Korody over at Drone Business Center for his input.

Research Methodology

Here’s how we conducted our research:

  • We ran the survey from April 20th to May 20th, 2019.
  • All survey respondents came from our customer list of Drone Pilot Ground School students. We sent emails to our list and encouraged responses with three $107 Amazon gift cards, which we raffled off after closing the survey. To add more context, Drone Pilot Ground School is our online test prep and training course for the U.S. FAA drone licensing exam, which we launched in July 2016.
  • We had a total of 1,389 respondents.
  • The average time to complete the survey was about 14 minutes.
  • The survey had a total of 16 questions.
  • We utilized conditional branching — based on how respondents answered a question, they got certain follow-up questions — so most respondents answered 11-12 questions.

One could conclude that our respondent sample, though large, is somewhat skewed. It’s difficult to gauge just how representative our data is of the entire U.S. drone industry, but we believe it does contain insightful information.

Now let’s look at the data.

Where Drone Pilots Live, What They Fly, and the Type of Work They Do

To get started, we wanted to look at the demographics of drone pilots taking part in the survey so we could get a sense for who they are and the type of work they’re doing.

The Highest Concentrations of Commercial Drone Pilots are in California, Texas, and Florida

DPGS Survey_1

This is not surprising, given that these are the most populated U.S. states.

About a year ago, Bill McNeil, a contributing writer at Directions Magazine, looked at FAA data on certified drone pilots, and his analysis of where Remote Pilot Certificate holders live mirrors ours when it comes to those big concentrations, with CA, TX, and FL also having the largest concentrations.

DJI Dominates the List of Most Commonly Used Drones

DPGS Survey 1

Note: Respondents were able to choose multiple answers, so the total number of responses is greater than the number of respondents.

As you might expect, DJI dominates our sample of the market, as it has in other U.S. commercial drone data for some time. It’s remarkable that more people are flying the DJI Matrice, a higher-end professional system, than all Yuneec, Parrot, or Autel models.

Over 50% of Drone Pilots Are Self-Employed / Freelancers

DPGS Survey 2

When we look at what prompted respondents to get their Part 107 certificate, the top three responses are fairly evenly split: about a quarter work for a company that uses drones, another quarter are self-employed / freelance drone pilots, and another quarter are self-employed in a line of work to which they added drones as a new service offering. About 5% work for a public safety department that uses drones, and about 4% are educators who are using drones in teaching.

While most respondents were prompted to get their Part 107 due to an existing line of work, a small portion got their Part 107 in anticipation of doing future drone work, either through their own business (1.8%) or through their employer (1.6%).

The 10% of respondents that self-identified as “Other” were given a free-form field to provide further information. “Other” primarily includes:

  • Drone industry participants who work in adjacent fields such as drone software, sales, maintenance, and counter-drone technology but are not themselves drone operators
  • Non-profit employees
  • University researchers
  • Hobbyists
  • Career-switchers with intentions to enter the drone industry in an undefined capacity

Deep Dive: Drone Pilots Who Work for a Company that Utilizes Drones

370 drone pilots in our survey indicated they work for a company that uses drones.

The Construction / Mining / Aggregates Industries Lead the Way in Utilizing Drones

DPGS Survey 3

Of those respondents who do commercial drone work at a company, 23% of them work in construction / mining / aggregates.

The energy and filmmaking / photography / videography industries tied for second, with 10% of respondents working in each category.

Something else to note in these responses is the wide variety of industries represented. The “Other” category includes, among others:

  • Consulting
  • IT
  • Software
  • Defense
  • Science
  • Water utilities
  • Education
  • Marketing
  • Security
  • Non-profits

Deep Dive: Self-Employed / Freelance Drone Pilots

353 drone pilots in our survey indicated they are self-employed / freelancers.

61% of Self-Employed Drone Pilots Started Flying Drones Commercially Within the Last Year

DPGS Survey 4

A large portion of self-employed respondents are new, with 44% having started flying drones commercially within the last six months.

10% of Self-Employed Drone Pilots Made $10K or More in the Last 12 Months, While 68% Made Less than $1,000

DPGS Survey 5

The data is interesting but begs the question: do more experienced pilots make more money? Check out the chart below to see how length of experience as a drone pilot corresponds to income.

DPGS Survey 6

When you take a closer look at the data, you see that self-employed / freelance pilots who have been around longer have demonstrated the ability to make money. 100% of respondents who haven’t earned any money yet and 66% of those who have earned less than $1,000 have all been flying for less than a year. In contrast, of the people who reported earning $1,000-$10,000, 73% have been flying commercially for at least 1 year. Moving up the earnings path, of the 34 people who reported earning more than $10,000, 32 have been flying commercially for at least 1 year and 25 have been flying for 2+ years.

That being said, the percentage of freelance drone pilots earning high incomes ($50K or more) is still quite low, although this may suit many pilots who pursue drone work as a part-time job or side hustle.

For Self-Employed Drone Pilots, the Real Estate Industry Currently Provides the Most Opportunities

DPGS Survey 7

Note: Respondents were able to choose multiple answers, so the total number of responses is greater than the number of respondents.

Something to address is that this question was tricky to write because industry classifications can have somewhat blurry lines in the greater drone industry. For example, a drone pilot taking aerial photos of a construction site may think of themselves as doing work in the filmmaking / photography / videography industry while another drone pilot would consider that to be work in the construction industry. Similarly, someone doing an aerial land survey for their local government may classify that as “surveying” while another may say “government”.

Therefore, it’s not surprising to see so many drone pilots say that they’ve performed drone services in the film / photo / video industry, as that category can be all-encompassing.

Deep Dive: Self-Employed / Freelance Professionals Who Added Drone Services to Their List of Offerings

346 drone pilots in our survey indicated they are self-employed / freelance professionals who added drone services to their existing list of offerings.

70% Of People Adding Drone Services to an Existing Business Are in Filmmaking / Photography / Videography or Real Estate

DPGS Survey 8

43% of those who are self-employed and added drone services to their existing business are filmmakers, photographers and videographers who are adding a birds-eye view to what they can offer their clients (for example, wedding photographers). 27% are folks who are in the real estate industry and see value in marketing properties with drone footage. The next largest group are those who work in construction / mining / aggregates, and then the percentages drop off rapidly, with the majority of industries after the top five capturing only a handful of respondents.

The “Other” category includes, among others:

  • Consulting
  • IT
  • Water utilities
  • Marketing
  • Security
  • Roofing
  • Landscape architecture
  • Virtual reality

Deep Dive: Drone Pilots in Public Safety Departments

Let’s take a closer look at those drone pilots working in a public safety department.

50% of Public Agencies Have or Plan to Get a COA

DPGS Survey 9

We’ve heard that a lot of public agencies struggle over the decision about whether to get a COA or to solely operate under the Part 107 rules, so it’s interesting to see the split in these responses.

Looking at Part 107 Renewals and Flying Habits

In this section, you’ll see the data suggests that people are feeling optimistic about their work as drone pilots.

97% of Drone Pilots Have Taken or Plan to Take the FAA Part 107 Unmanned General Recurrent (UGR) Test

DPGS Survey 10

Holy batman.

These results indicate enthusiasm and optimism. Almost everyone reported that they either plan to renew when the time comes or that they have already taken the renewal test.

This is in contrast to an excellent article that drone industry analyst Colin Snow wrote in May 2019 for Forbes, where he states:

Given remote pilot certification started in August 2016, that means only 20% of the original pilots have renewed their license to operate commercially. To be fair, that figure may be higher but not by much since Part 61 pilots with an existing RPC and have met their flight review requirements are considered RPC current.

One could argue that our sample of 1,389 drone pilots is skewed toward people who want to maintain their Part 107 certificate, since all survey respondents are alumni of our test prep course for the Part 107 test. In actuality, the majority of our customers purchase our course to study for their initial test, not for the renewal test. On the other hand, the decision to pay for a premium test prep course with lifetime access may indicate that these are customers who are invested in staying up-to-date on their certificate for the long term. Overall, we acknowledge that this question in particular may not show an accurate representation of the wider drone industry, and it’s difficult to compare the findings of Colin Snow and the FAA directly to our own.

As a follow-up question, we asked:

DPGS Survey 11

About 42% of respondents provided a business case for maintaining their Part 107 certificate — their employer requires it (25.4%) or they already do enough business to warrant the renewal (16.9%) — so they are actively using their certificate for work.

The largest group (33.3%) are optimistic about their future ability to make money with their Part 107 certificate.

Reasons Drone Pilots Aren’t Taking the Renewal Test

37 drone pilots said they didn’t plan to take the FAA’s renewal test. Here are the reasons they gave.

DPGS Survey 12

Only 6 drone pilots, or 15% of the 37, said they didn’t plan to take the renewal test because they weren’t making money in the drone industry. 38% simply hadn’t yet taken the initial Part 107 test.

For those 11 respondents categorized as “Other”, here are some of the reasons they gave for not planning to take the renewal test:

  • Don’t need Part 107 certification long term
  • Don’t need Part 107 certification for their next drone project
  • Didn’t enjoy working with drones as much as they thought they would

How Often Are Drone Pilots Flying?

As another way to evaluate the health of the drone industry, we were interested in how often people are flying commercially and whether or not they plan to fly more in the coming year.

The way we see it, more time in the air (i.e., “stick time”) is another metric for the health of the industry.

38% of Drone Pilots Fly Three or More Times a Month for Commercial Purposes

DPGS Survey 13

First, it’s striking that one-third of respondents hadn’t yet flown under the Part 107 regulations. Some of the respondents are simply new to the industry. In addition, some portion of those who get their Part 107 certificate are not experienced pilots and instead obtain the certificate proactively before putting in the time to develop their flying chops.

That being said, we found it to be a good sign of the health of the industry that two-thirds of respondents fly for commercial purposes at least once a month and almost 40% fly three or more times a month.

64% of Drone Pilots Plan to Increase How Often They Fly for Commercial Purposes Over the Next 12 Months

DPGS Survey 14

We also found these answers heartening—almost everyone plans to keep flying commercially at their current frequency or to fly more often, with only 5% planning to fly less.

Showing Proof of Your Part 107 Drone License

We wanted to know how often drone pilots need to show their Part 107 certificate to law enforcement or professional contacts.

Only 2% of Drone Pilots Have Been Asked to Show Their Part 107 Certificate to Law Enforcement While Flying Commercially

DPGS Survey 15

27% of Drone Pilots Have Been Asked for Proof of Their FAA Part 107 Certificate by a Client or Someone at Work

DPGS Survey 16

While it doesn’t appear that law enforcement often needs to see proof of being Part 107 certified, it seems that a growing number of employers and clients are aware that when it comes to hiring a drone pilot, it’s a good idea to ensure they have their certificate.

Conclusion

Thanks again to everyone who participated in the survey. You made this possible, and we are grateful to you.

We hope you found these results interesting and helpful.

Have some thoughts about the survey that you’d like to share? Hop into this post in our community forum and join the discussion!

Join a global community of

50,000+

drone enthusiasts.

Subscribe