One of the best things about a hobby like photography is the ability to take on a few freelance assignments and make the gradual transition to being a professional. Drones offer a similar route, but if you are going to make money from a drone there are a few rules and regulations that are unique to flying cameras.

If you’re taking the step from hobby to an income stream, there are a few things you’ll need to add to your flying bag, which we’ll look at below. Even the best drones need know-how, a degree of skill, and knowledge of the law.

The first question you need to ask yourself is “Do you have what it takes to be a pilot?” If that sounds a bit macho, worry not – this isn’t about doing loop-the-loops and pulling a 5G turn without emptying your stomach. What professional pilots really have to deal with is checklists, regulations, and communication.

Below follows a list of what you’ll need, rounded off with a list of professional drones you might soon find yourself wanting as you extend your client base.

Pilot Training

In most countries, you’ll need to be able to prove to the local aviation authorities that you’re a capable pilot before accepting commercial jobs. In fact with all drones over 250g (8.8oz) the chances are that you’ll need to at least register your aircraft, so you’ll probably already be somewhat familiar with your aviation authority.

You might think you can comfortably fly your aircraft – in fact with GPS switched on it’s not especially difficult – but that’s only part of the puzzle. You’ll also need to understand all the relevant air law which, as you can imagine, is both extensive and always subject to review and updates. Aviation authorities like the FAA and CAA produce and update a good deal of this and, while they’re certainly not the enemy, they do have a lot to worry about; airliner certification, government lobbying, and much else besides. By its nature, this is bureaucratic and complex.

A good trainer will put a human face on all this for you, and you should be looking for an organization you can build a relationship with. They will remember you, and help you keep your paperwork up to date. Budget for annual renewals or re-training as qualifications are updated. In the UK, for example, the current PfCO will change to a new system, called the GVC in July 2020, but what re-training is needed won’t be known until May. This kind of change is happening in every jurisdiction, and you need to monitor it, or work with someone who handles that for you.

You can find what to do next at the FAA Become a Drone Pilot page in the USA. In the UK look for a Full NQE which can carry out the training and exams, like Fly Icarus.

Airspace charts & apps

With every individual job, you’ll need to know whether you can take off at all. Your training will tell you how to read the aviation charts, but you should still pick up a printed one for your bag. As a drone pilot, you’ll be flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules), so it’s these charts you need.

In the US you can get your local FAA Charts: VFR from Amazon. In UK and Europe look for the Rogers VFR charts.

As a backup, it’s also useful to use an App which can provide live data. Great examples are 

• NATS Drone Assist (UK) or
• B4UFLY (USA). 

These have the advantage of accessing NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen), which warn of temporary restrictions (from cranes or air shows, say).

Insurance

Commercial liability insurance is a necessity, and the market has got options for those working full time or operating more casually, with most offering the choice between monthly renewing policies and flexible per-flight protection. What you’re insuring against, for the most part, is the damage you can be responsible for with your aircraft (liability), which explains why the ‘basic’ cover protects you for a million or more in that category. Despite the high liability numbers, you may find the ‘Hull’ cover doesn’t cover the cost of your aircraft and equipment unless you spend a little more – be sure to check your policy. 

UK pilots look at Moonrock Insurance and Flock (who have an app which can give you a live risk-metric and quote based on your choice of aircraft, location and time). 

Battery safety

Lithium battery fire caused by short circuit test by the University of Maryland.

It’s just as important (and, in most places, just as compulsory) to ensure that your batteries cannot start a fire when they’re not in use. Damage can take some time to reach combustion, so you should always keep batteries in a fireproof container known as a “li-po bag,” in essence a fireproof blanket in the form of a bag. 

High-Vis Jacket

It has to be said that high-visibility goes two ways. On a busy site, you certainly want to make sure you’re seen by others operating dangerous equipment – indeed it might well be a requirement – but at the same time there are risks to drawing attention to yourself if the public can stray near. Once you’ve taken off, you don’t want interested members of the public disturbing you, however enthusiastically, so a vest with Do Not Disturb is a nice touch.

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