Today’s contribution comes from Josh Boughner, who turned his birthday present drone into a money-making machine.
Hooked after his first paid drone-flying gigs, Josh now runs SoldByAir.com, the largest real estate drone network in the US. The site has over 1000 registered pilots (at least one pilot in every state), and connects those drone operators with jobs across the country.
Take it away, Josh!
I’m one of those tech guys who loves his toys. My wife realizes this, so for one of my previous birthdays she bought me a drone.
Nick’s Notes: Nice wife! Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are usually equipped with a camera to take photos or video. They look like miniature futuristic helicopters and you fly them via remote control.
A few weeks later a realtor in the family asked me to take aerial photos of a property they had for sale. And they were going to pay me.
Make money flying a toy?
I was in!
When you consider the costs, starting a drone business is cheap. Why not put a drone to work and make some extra cash? Drones are a perfect fit for a fun and profitable side hustle.
The first place most drone pilots try to drum up work is in the real estate market. It’s easy and familiar.
Realtors need attractive photos to help market properties online, and drones can provide an elevated vantage point to show off different features of a house or property.
Personally I prefer doing real estate because I love seeing amazing properties. Not every house needs drone photos, but high end listings purchase drone photos more often.
There have been times where I get to a shoot and no one is there but me and I have to stop and just stare at the house in amazement.
There are these incredible mansions I didn’t even know existed near where I live. I love it.
It costs money for insurance companies to send someone up on a ladder. Drones are often much cheaper.
These jobs can be quick and easy. They often come in large quantities and then dry up quickly directly after large storms.
If you like traveling and documenting amazing sights you can try your hand at selling stock photos/video.
You’ll have to amass quite a bit of footage before you can expect to see much from sales but if you are good there are a number of websites where you can list your work.
Drones are so new that there are many industries still learning how to utilize them. If you are creative there is the potential to find or create your own niche.
Some industries using drones are more technical than others. Cell tower inspection, thermal imagery, high end video productions are a few examples.
Once your name gets out in your area you will get requests for drone jobs that don’t really have a specific category. I did a job for a contractor who was bidding on a job to create a walking trail.
The job was basically to fly the drone down a few miles of a potential walking path and take video of it that they could show to the potential client. It was relatively easy work, and jobs like this are a ton of fun as they help to keep things interesting.
The amount you charge is really up to you. This is a new and exciting market so nothing is set in stone.
If you go into some of the more complex verticals like cell tower inspection or thermal imagery you can charge a lot more for your services. However, working in the higher dollar areas require technical knowledge, more expensive gear and quite often having connections to people in those industries.
Since the real estate industry is where most people start, let me use that as an example.
Pricing is generally in the range of $75-200 for drone photos, though it varies based on local market conditions. For real estate video you can charge more.
I’ve found it’s difficult to charge extra just because it’s an expensive house, but you can charge extra for houses on large plots of land. Acreage simply takes more time to fly with a drone.
Most drone pilots start out on the lower end of pricing and increase their rates as their skill level increases and they build their portfolio.
For example, I did my very first job for $50. At the time I thought it was awesome.
I quickly realized I wasn’t charging enough, so I added $25 to my price.
When no one complained, I added $25 again. I did that and raised my prices until I started hearing people say they had other cheaper options.
I didn’t go back down to the cheaper guys’ prices, but I had now found a fair market price to set my fees for my area.
Starting a drone business is relatively cheap. All in, you are looking at around $1500-$2000 to have a minimum viable drone business up and running.
If you hustle and push hard you can have that paid off quickly (we were profitable in a few months).
The startup costs include:
You can get a high quality drone for less than $1,500.
There are many drones on the market, but the best are all made by DJI. They dominate the drone market for good reason as they always seem to be a step ahead of the competition.
The exact drone you buy really depends on the type of work you plan to use it for.
For entry level drones you can use professionally, look at the Phantom 4 Pro and the Mavic Pro Platinum.
The Phantom has the better camera but the Mavic is much quieter while in the air. Each have their place. I give the slight edge to the Phantom as the camera is a pretty significant jump up (+8 megapixels).
Drones have become fairly advanced very quickly. They have automated flight patterns and are extremely steady in the air. Flying the drone and taking pictures/video is one of the easiest parts of the job.
Still, you are going to want to familiarize yourself with photo and video editing software. You don’t have to be an expert at Photoshop but you will want to learn the basics.
Some valuable techniques/topics to study up on include:
On the video front, you can use something like iMovie before upgrading to Adobe Premiere or After Effects. Practice on your own videos first to learn how the software works.
Because the cost of entry is so low, there is competition in the field. Post production is something that can set you apart from the kid down the street.
In order to make money with a drone you are required to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
To get licensed you have to pass a test that seems more geared towards general aviation then it does to drones.
Don’t be intimidated by the test — it’s not very difficult and has a 91% pass rate. The FAA provides all the study material you’ll need, and there are many study guides and training classes available for those who need some extra help.
The test itself costs $150 and is good for 2 years. I personally studied for about two weeks and passed it easily.
Now that you’ve got your drone, it’s time to re-coup your initial investment and start making some money.
So how do you find the work?
Luckily there are websites you can join that specialize in drone pilot jobs. They will usually take a percentage of the payment in exchange for sending you the job.
These marketplaces include:
If you just want to fly and not deal with cold calling or finding customers, these sites may be right for you.
If you prefer to be a little more proactive, you can reach out to realtors, their agencies, or insurance companies themselves to offer your services.
Nick’s Notes: This is freelancing and we’ve seen tons of creative ways people have marketed their freelance services.
Advertising in local Facebook groups can help. Try to think of places where the customers are and go there. There are various real estate gatherings that can get you in front of realtors. Think outside the box.
I’ve also been known to stop at open houses from time to time.
As with everything else, there are laws you have to abide by when flying drones.
Are you near any airports? Airmap is a cool little app to show you what the local airspace is like. Busy airports require authorization to fly nearby. There is a process the FAA is implementing to speed up authorization requests but for the time being legally flying jobs near airports can be very difficult.
It’s also illegal to fly drones in national parks.
State laws and local ordinances vary. While the FAA has ultimate authority over the skies, they seem to avoid getting involved in drone disputes at local or state levels so it’s best to follow your local and state laws even if they seem more restrictive than what the FAA has on the books.
Planning is key to a successful shoot.
Make sure to schedule when there’s no rain or strong winds in the forecast. Be sure your batteries are charged and don’t forget the SD card.
A common mistake new pilots make is to fly too high. If you are flying real estate the goal is to sell the house, not show off the roof.
Keep the entire house in the frame of the photos and provide a variety of photos showing off different angles and key points of interest for the property. Show off the location of the property relative to areas of interest such as golf courses, shopping centers, waterways or similar.
Over time you will want to come up with a repeatable process. Plan to take the same set of photos at every shoot to speed up the work. When I first started, I might spend 45 minutes to an hour at a property. Now I am in and out in 15 minutes if there’s no one there to talk to.
The media has painted drones as scary spying devices. Some people think drones are awesome technology and will talk your ear off asking questions the entire time you fly. Others are paranoid about them.
If you do enough jobs you will eventually get someone asking you, “Hey are you spying on my daughter?”
They’re usually half joking/half serious.
Be friendly; let them know why you are there and you shouldn’t have any problems.
I remember one particular occasion vividly. I was on a weekend shoot and brought my son with me, since he likes drones too. It was a vacant large plot of farmland so I assumed that we wouldn’t run into anybody.
I was wrong.
Just as we’d finished and were packing up, a guy in his minivan comes driving down down the lane with his hand out the window recording us on his cell phone.
He starts the conversation by saying. “You are lucky I didn’t have my shotgun handy or I would have shot that thing out of the sky!”
Calmly I pointed to the realtor sign on the plot of land and explained to him that we were just there to get photos of the farmland for sale. I showed him one of the photos and he calmed down dramatically. He even asked if he could fly the drone!
Drone video is obviously more complex than photography but it doesn’t have to be hard.
The general rule of thumb is to keep your videos short — hardly anyone watches videos online for longer than a minute.
Take short clips and splice them together. Any jerky movements should be edited out.
Drone video can be sold to a variety of customers. Not only do realtors want video of the house being listed, but they sometimes want video of the town that the house is in they can re-use in future listings. You can charge a premium for reusable video.
Businesses like drone videos for commercials or Facebook ads. We’ve even have people request aerial video of private parties/events.
Video is less forgiving than photos as you can’t just photoshop objects out of it. Make sure to get much more footage than you think you’ll need as it’s much easier and quicker to cut out a bad clip then it is to fix it.
Drone work is much like other ‘gig’ work. Once you have a steady stream of customers you’ll be driving around from job to job.
Save yourself a headache in the future and get a process in place for tracking your mileage. I recommend MileIQ. Even though it has an annual subscription it quickly pays for itself in tax savings.
There are days when I’m out flying my drone at a customer site and I think to myself, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!”
It is extremely fun and pretty exciting to be involved in a cutting edge field. To be fair there’s not really enough work yet to easily make it a full time gig, which is actually a great thing for those looking for a cool side hustle!
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