6 Essential Steps to Becoming a Drone Pilot
So you’re interested in being a part of the high-flying, fast paced world of flying drones? And want to get paid to do it? Drone piloting is a quickly expanding industry that includes occupations ranging from drone cinematography to surveying. However, it’s not as easy as just going out and buying a drone. Below are the six essential steps to becoming a professional drone pilot.
1. Buy an Affordable Quadcopter First
You Will Crash. Let me say that again. You Will Crash. Drones are not cheap. Even with built in GPS and obstacle avoidance, it’s still far too easy to crash your drone and when (not if) you do they’re very expensive to fix or even worse, replace.
[Quick Note: Obstacle avoidance doesn’t have sensors all around the drone. Usually the sensors are only in the front, so while you are learning it’s very easy to fly up or down into an object, back into, or sideswipe into something. You can’t rely on obstacle avoidance to prevent your drone from crashing.]
The solution? Start flying with something that is affordable and durable. That’s why I recommend starting with a quadcopter and not a drone. The main difference is that the quadcopter lacks GPS, lacks intelligent flying, and the cameras are far inferior, but most of your quadcopters are made to crash. With the cheap plastic you can fly it straight into a wall or tree, flip it over, and keep on flying. If you crash a real drone into a wall you’ll be out several hundred dollars. Minimum.
Another advantage of learning on a quadcopter is learning how to fly without GPS. On a drone, the GPS tries to keep the drone in the same spot and minimize drift, so when you let off the controls, the drone tries to come to a stop. When flying without GPS you have to manually counter-act wind, braking, and even manually maintain elevation. By learning this way you become a better pilot. GPS free flying teaches you precision, how to brake faster, and how to maintain control of the drone if GPS drops out, which is very common, especially when flying indoors or under objects.
The great news is that quadcopters start at around $20. I do not recommend learning on a nano though as, although they are very fun to fly indoors, they are more difficult to fly than the larger quadcopters. I personally started with a UDI from Amazon, but there are numerous options at every price point.
2. Getting a License From the FAA
If you are going to make money in any way connected to flying a drone, you are legally required to be licensed by the FAA. To start, you want to get your part 107 UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Remote Pilot Certificate. To get certified you have to be:
• At least 16 years old.
• Pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
• Undergo TSA security screening.
The most difficult of the three is the aeronautical knowledge test. Two thirds of this test is identical to the written test that pilots take. That’s right, pilots who fly real planes. So it’s not easy. The majority of people testing have to take it multiple times before they pass. This test costs $150 every time you take it and you are required to wait two weeks between each attempt. The study guide that the FAA provides is not the most helpful; however, there are numerous online classes and videos that can help teach you the knowledge required to pass. YouTube is a great resource. Study far more than you think you need to, and you’ll be a better off on test day.
3. Practice Safely
Whether you are just learning to fly and using a quadcopter or an experienced drone pilot, we all need to practice to hone our skills and continue to improve. When you do practice, fly in open areas, like fields or an empty park, and preferably on private property. Stay away from public places where bystanders could be found or accidentally injured. While you are practicing you don’t want to crash into someone’s property or even worse, a person.
4. Don’t Fly Alone
Always fly with a spotter. Officially the spotter is called the Visual Observer or VO for short. The VO’s job is to always maintain line of sight with the drone. It is legally mandatory to always maintain line of sight with your drone while it is in the air. If you’re watching the video signal, even for a second, you are not maintaining line of sight. So it is the job of the VO to maintain that line of sight and stay in constant communication with the drone pilot, updating them if they are approaching any hazards or obstacles and updating on the surrounding areas of the drone.
5. You Need Insurance
Due to the high risk of crash while flying a drone, insurance that covers the drone itself while it is in the air is both expensive and hard to come by. However, if you crash a drone, the drone itself potentially could be the cheapest portion of the damage. If you crash into someone’s property or person, you could be out thousands, maybe even millions. This is why it is important to have liability insurance. Just like you insure the car you drive, you need to insure the drone you are flying.
Athos Insurance, ShareGrid's exclusive insurance partner, offers additional coverage on your drone, including liability if you already have production insurance for your production. Soon, Athos will also be offering specific standalone drone coverage just for your drone when it is not in flight. And this does include Voluntary Parting. [Voluntary Parting: when you rent out your gear and someone doesn’t return it].
Another option, if you only need coverage by the hour, is Verifly. Verifly is an on-demand hourly drone liability insurance. It uses an app on your phone and when you want to start your insurance coverage, you click a button and in the matter of seconds, you’re covered. Rates start at $10 an hour and policies ranging from $1,000,000 - $10,000,000. You can even pre-book a flight if you need proof of coverage for a location or production.
6. Obey your Local Laws and FAA Controlled Airspaces
When flying it is ALWAYS important to know what FAA airspace you are currently in, if there are any flight restrictions in your area, and how your local laws pertain to drone flights. For airspace, apps like Kitty Hawk can show you what restrictions are around you. If you are flying professionally, especially if you are taking off or landing on public property, you are probably required to obtain film permits, so be sure to check in with your local film permitting office. If you need to fly in a controlled airspace, remember that includes any elevation above 400ft or flying at night, you are required to receive an FAA waiver. This waiver can take 90 days to process, so be sure to file LONG in advance of your shoot.