7 Ways to Make Money with Aerial Thermography

BY Alan Perlman
18 January 2017

As commercial applications for drones continue to grow at an exponential rate, it can sometimes feel hard to keep track of them all.

If you fly a drone commercially and own your own company, you may have started your business by offering aerial photography and/or videography to real estate businesses, or maybe surveying to construction companies.

But with everything in the industry growing so rapidly, you may find that those more traditional sUAS services are becoming crowded, and competition stiff.

If that’s the case, you might be hungry for new sectors where you can put your commercial pilot skills to use. Or maybe you just want to diversify your skill sets in general.

This post is about aerial thermography, another fast-growing sector in the commercial drone space, and how you can actually make money doing it.

Before We Dive In, What Exactly Is Thermography?

Thermography is the translation of thermal energy (heat) into visible light in order to analyze a particular object or scene. An aerial thermographer uses a thermal camera to measure that translation as it’s happening. Here is a list of seven ways you can make money with aerial thermography as a commercial drone pilot.

1. Fire Fighting

After a fire seems to have burned itself out, it can still be smoldering in places that are difficult to detect by the naked eye.

Using aerial thermography, fire fighters can see where those lingering “hot spots” are, and make sure they keep themselves from harm.

Aerial thermography can also help identify the location of fire victims, either within a house or a forest fire, so that fire fighters know where to focus their energy and time.

How to make money in this sector: While most fire departments are probably not going to be hiring freelance drone pilots to fly aerial thermography missions on a regular basis, they will almost certainly be interested in finding ways to use the service.

Many fire departments interested in using aerial thermography will be looking for training sessions so that they can learn how to do aerial thermography in-house, and some may even want to hire experienced drone pilots for part- or full-time work, based on their need. The best way to find out if there is an interest is to reach out to the fire departments in your area. They may not have aerial thermography on their radar, but may be interested once you explain the potential value for their work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BM5kbC0VN3Q

2. Power Line Inspections

One of the many uses of aerial thermography is in preventing fires that occur as a result from failures in power lines.

By detecting weak points in the transmission and distribution network, which is a highly complex system of lines of interconnecting electric energy sources, drones equipped with thermal imaging systems can identify problem areas before a breakdown or fire happens and prevent the fire from happening.

Check out this video from Workswell to see how easily problem areas in power lines are detected using aerial thermography. Just imagine trying to find the same problem areas manually, and the power of aerial thermography will be immediately apparent.

How to make money in this sector: Reach out to local power companies and try to get a meeting with someone responsible for operations. Make sure to present the potential savings your services can provide, and email this information even if you can’t secure a meeting. Some power companies are actually using helicopters for these inspections, which is incredibly expensive; manual inspections are also expensive, in part because of the high insurance premiums required. Become familiar with these costs and use those price points to persuade companies to use your services. Make sure to keep building your resume by doing similar inspections in other areas, so that you can keep coming back to bigger companies to make the case for why they should hire you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqM-Hsj5NqM&t=64s

3. Solar Panel Inspections

If a solar panel is malfunctioning, this could mean a huge daily loss in potential energy gathered. But manual inspections are time consuming, and cost prohibitive.

Using aerial thermography, an entire field of solar panels can be inspected quickly, checking for any hot spots where there might be problem areas.

When the alternatives are either doing the inspection by hand, or not doing it at all (which could risk losing huge amounts of potential energy), the cost-benefit analysis alone should help commercial pilots secure this kind of work in a snap.

How to make money in this sector: Do your homework, and draw up a clear cost-benefit analysis that shows how much a solar company could save if they used your services as opposed to what they’re currently doing for solar panel inspections. Some solar panel owners may not be doing regular inspections at all, in which case you’ll need to talk about the value of inspections, and how they could potentially be saving lots of energy by identifying problems early on. Make sure to reach out to all solar panel owners in your area to explain how you can save them money with your services.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjQ6Y4_fqKo

4. Building HVAC (Heating Ventilation, Air Conditioning) and Roof Inspections

Thermography can allow pilots to perform a simple energy audit of any building, either someone’s home or a large corporate structure, in order to determine where there might be excess heat, or where heat might be escaping.

This is one application that companies with large buildings might not even know they need, but would probably be grateful to have offered.

Just think about it—the bigger the building, the more potential savings in store if these kinds of heat-related problems can be detected.

How to make money in this sector: Owners of large, commercial buildings are the most likely candidates for this type of service, since the potential savings for them if they can identify areas where energy is being wasted could be huge. If you already have connections with local realtors through aerial photography, see if you can get introductions to people who own large buildings and might be interested in this service.

Also, consider attending homeowners meetings and other events of that nature to spread the word about how you can help people save money through your services. Keep in mind that the school board might oversee one of the largest groups of buildings in your area. If you can get on the agenda of one of their meetings, you may be able to get a large contract that could keep you in business for weeks, or even months.

Check out this video from FLIR to see how thermography can be used for building and home inspections.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4t1C6T9LNCY

5. Cell Tower Inspections

Just as with power lines, aerial thermography can also help detect problem areas in cell towers.

This is yet another scenario where the only alternative would be manual inspection, which can be costly, as well as dangerous for the people who have to climb up and do the inspection.

Big cell companies like AT&T and Verizon are starting to use drones for cell tower inspections, and we can only imagine this sector growing.

Even if these companies end up wanting to do these inspections in-house, this could be an opportunity for commercial drone pilots to get in on the ground floor and secure stable, long-term work with large companies.

How to make money in this sector: This is a scenario where you may want to reach out to a local company providing this service and work with them for a while to develop a resume and contacts before trying to go it on your own. However, there might not be a local outfit, so make sure to be proactive in searching out contacts in the local branches of cell phone companies in your area, reaching out to them, and letting them know about the inspection services you offer. Also, try to build your resume doing similar inspections for locally-based companies so that you have experience to point to when you do get to talk to a decision maker at a big company.

ZenMuse Cell Tower Inspections

Image Source

6. Search and Rescue

When someone is lost outdoors, timing is everything. Whether the climate is hot or cold, the longer they stay outside the more dangerous the situation becomes.

Since drones can cover a huge area of space in a short period of time, using aerial thermography to find people lost outdoors not only makes sense, it can potentially save lives.

In addition, if a person is injured or too weak to call out, someone searching could potentially walk right by the person they’re trying to save and not see them.

With a drone, all you have to do is look for the heat signature of the person you’re trying to rescue.

How to make money in this sector: Search and Rescue teams are often volunteer-based, but will pay for group trainings. Draw up a proposal for a training, and consider attending a local S&R meeting to do a short presentation on the value of aerial thermography in helping find lost people exposed to the elements.

If you can help people understand the value and detail step-by-step how they could actually apply the knowledge you can share with them in a search and rescue scenario, you may find yourself with a full docket of trainings scheduled in no time. And keep in mind, once you a do a training for one group, the word-of-mouth factor is likely to help you find work throughout your area, and beyond.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joo04mp-UYg

7. Hazardous Material (HAZMAT) Inspections

Yet another scenario in which drones can go where people can’t, and really shouldn’t go.

In the video below, the Roswell Flight Test Crew (RFTC) demonstrates how a drone could help “perform real-time reconnaissance for firefighters responding to a hazardous material spill.”

From their YouTube channel:

“Equipped with a FLIR thermal imaging camera, RQCX-3 Raven flies over 1,000 feet down range to inspect a rail car carrying a deadly cargo of molten phenol, instantly making information available to the incident commander that would otherwise take much, much longer and put lives at risk.”

As a side note, the RFTC is doing some great work with drones and drone training resources. Their YouTube channel is well worth checking out if you’re interested in learning more about how drones can be used to save lives and keep people safe.

How to make money in this sector: Reach out to your local fire department to find out about opportunities involving this application of aerial thermography. They may need help with training, or want to take you on part- or full-time, or case-by-case, to help with scenarios that involve hazardous materials. Also, investigate companies in your area that work with hazardous materials, and send them your contact information in case they ever need support with HAZMAT inspections.

Here is the video of RFTC’s aerial thermography HAZMAT demonstration:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtabqVxt3KA

A Few General Tips on Making Money

  • Create promotional materials, and keep them on hand. Make sure to have a flyer ready to give someone who’s curious about what you do, and make sure your materials clearly explain the value and different applications of your skill sets. And don’t forget to include your contact information!
  • Establish and maintain a web presence. To get an edge over your competitors, try to have a strong web presence in your area of expertise and geographic area. This way if people are searching for the type of service you provide, they’ll be able to find you.
  • Get experience by working with a larger commercial outfit. If there is an established commercial drone company in your area providing the type of services you want to provide, you may want to see if you can work with them, even if only on a part-time basis in order to get the skills and experience necessary to start doing inspections on your own.
  • Educate your customers. Given that a lot of drone-related services are still emerging fields, you may need to educate your potential customers on the value you can provide. Keep this in mind when reaching out to new contacts, and make sure to be ready to explain how you can save them money and optimize their existing practices with your service.
  • Do your homework. If you can show your customers how you’ll save them money, the decision will be a no brainer for them. So investigate what they’re currently doing, and send them a proposal showing how much your inspection could potentially save for them. This approach not only highlights savings, but also your work ethic and diligence.
  • Think outside the box. Use the contacts you have to get introductions to new potential customers. If you’ve been working in real estate, see if you any of the realtors you know can provide introductions to owners of large businesses who might need your services. If you’ve trained fire fighters, make sure to ask if they have contacts at other local fire departments, or even regional ones who might pay for you to travel there and train their staff. It never hurts to ask!

Want to add aerial thermography to your list of skill sets? Check out our Intro to Aerial Thermography course, and get up and running in no time.

Alan Perlman

Founder & CEO

Alan is an FAA-certified drone pilot and founded UAV Coach in 2014 to help connect drone enthusiasts, to provide world-class sUAS industry training courses, and to help push the drone community forward with a focus on safety and commercial opportunities.

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