Up until now, the process of becoming a commercial drone pilot was onerous.
The FAA released some staggering numbers as it welcomed Part 107, otherwise known as the rules governing — or perhaps creating — the commercial drone industry in the U.S.: Within one year, the FAA estimates that 600,000 drones will be active in commerce in the United States.
Even if you assume every pilot has, on average, 1.2 drones, that’s still half a million commercial drone pilots. Where will these half a million new pilots come from and what exactly what will they be doing?
Maybe existing pilots will transition to drones. There are currently 171,000 FAA-licensed private pilots in the U.S. Even assuming that every one of them caught the drone bug and decided to quit their day job (which we all know is unlikely), that would still leave 329,000 who are expected to register as commercial users this year. Because only about 6,000 people are currently registered as commercial drone pilots, that means there will be more than 300,000 new commercial users directly resulting from the new regulation. That’s more than the population of Orlando.
The natural first question is whether these new pilots will be part of larger organizations, small business owners or individuals. Because the FAA estimates that 90 percent of commercial drones will have an average price under $2,500, think Phantom or Inspire drones. And when the tools of your trade are cheap enough for most Americans to afford on their own, there is little incentive to become part of a larger organization. So this leaves about 290,000 sole proprietors and small businesses on pace to register this year. This represents a whopping 52X growth in drone pilots year over year. But where will all these new users come from and what will these drones be used to do?
Typically they started out as consumers — receiving a drone as a gift, or having saved up for one as a special purchase — and fell in love with flying. They got so good at it that people started asking them to do favors; take a video of a house, do a roof inspection, snap some aerial family photos or perhaps survey a construction site. All it takes is a website and business cards and voilà — they had a sideline drone enterprise.
And how do they find clients? They hustle. They are always looking for new ways to add value to their clients through aviation. Part 107 will now put these enthusiasts on equal footing with the manned pilots currently working the skies. By the time this is all over, the number of commercial drone pilots will easily eclipse the entire manned pilot population in the United States — the only question is: how many times over?
The winners will be the best entrepreneurs — the ones who find innovative ways to scale and delight their clients. Even the equipment is now readily available, thanks to a robust market for commercial-grade drones at consumer-friendly prices. When people can make back their investment on something they want by doing what they love, great things will happen.
This article is by Jay Bregman, the CEO and co-founder of Verifly, one of the hottest start-ups in the drone industry (Q42016). Verifly sells insurance by the hour – which is pretty much the target audience for the 290,000 sole proprietors and small businesses he hopes are “on pace to register this year.”
I, along with Patrick Egan who posts regularly on this topic and has tried his hand at making a living as a drone imager, have a more sanguine perspective. The dirty little secret is that being a freelancer is very hard. The website and a business card crowd will be in business just long enough to ring the register at Best Buy, make the numbers for the local China Inc. sales rep and do some serious damage to their plastic. Later the drone, along with all of the must-have accessories, will be available on eBay. Along the way, they will have purchased a few hours of insurance.
Let us reason together. First of all, we are not only busy but we are lazy beings – so who is going to invest the money and mostly the time in preparing for a difficult test (because the content is utterly foreign) unless they are convinced that a substantial opportunity exists. For those who do and pass, who is going to quit their day job? Not many – yet many of the businesses who might require drone services will reasonably expect to be able to work M-F, 9-5. Exactly when the dronepreneur has his day job.
Finally, there is already considerable discussion about whether prospective customers will pay a premium to fly with someone who has a remote certificate. Making such a choice assumes people know that Part 107 exists – hard to imagine that this got by anyone I know. A much more dangerous and completely unfounded assumption is that a prospective customer understands the benefits to them of using a certificated pilot. Let’s be very clear that this is a case that has not been made by anyone. The coup de grace is the increasingly low barrier to entry that Bregman points to, which does not help anyone but instead ensures an unending supply of uninsured
Yes. It is going to happen. Someday being a drone pilot may be a good living for a lot of people. It is something that the industry must invest heavily in if it is to grow. Because without pilots nothing happens. So far I have seen nothing to suggest that it is going to happen in a year.