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(9 minute read)

Woohoo, you did it! Somehow you have managed to turn every child’s ideal job into a reality: you have the opportunity to fly a drone for a client… AND GET PAID TO DO IT! As crazy as this would have sounded a decade ago, drones are now being used for multiple purposes including cinematography, aerial surveying, infrastructure inspections, entertainment, you name it. I have personally been working with radio controlled helicopters for over 15 years, and drones for over 8 years. I must admit – in the last 6 months I have seen an definitive spike in drone usage and opportunities available for companies specializing in providing drone services.

So let’s say you’ve got your first job lined up, you’ve got your equipment ready to go, and you’re ready to fly! Based on my experience in the drone industry, providing services for everything from RC airshows to high end aerial cinematography, infrastructure inspections to night time entertainment shows… here are my top 10 do’s and don’ts when it comes to flying a drone for a client.

1) Fly Legally

In the USA, the way the law is currently written is that if you want to fly your drone in return for any compensation at all (anything from providing drone services in exchange for money, another service, or even in exchange for tickets to Beyonce’s next stadium show), you MUST pass the test to become a certified remote pilot with the FAA (14 CFR Part 107). Simply put, you have to learn the laws pertaining to safely flying your drone, airspace, emergency procedures, and how weather will affect your drone… among others. Once you have acquired your license, you are now legally permitted to fly your drone in exchange for monetary or other compensation.

Once you have your license, another thing you will want to consider is drone liability insurance. This part of the market has really opened up in the last few years, with companies offering insurance for your drone, property, and general liability. My personal go-to for this is a smartphone app called VeriFly, which allows me to instantly get on the spot insurance on my drone and all persons within my flight area when I am shooting for a client. You can literally get your drone insurance 5 minutes before take off. Super useful and could potentially save you big bucks- definitely check that out.

2) Scout Your Location & Know Your Airspace!

Let’s say your first job is to take some photos for a realtor of a Million dollar home on the lake. Days before the first job, they email you the address. The first thing you should do is pop that address into a smartphone app like Airmap or Kittyhawk.io (my personal favorites… among others), which will show the airspace of your shooting location. Per your remote pilot’s rules, you are permitted to operate in any Class G airspace without any other authorization. If your shooting location is in Class G, congrats… your life just became that much easier. Many times, this is not the case. If your shooting location happens to be in regulated airspace (Class B, C, D, etc), then you are going to need to get authorization from the airport to fly your drone. Luckily, a new program called LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability) is beginning to roll out nationwide, allowing drone pilots to request instant airspace authorization all through a smart phone app. This is really making our lives easier- so definitely check into this. In addition, your shooting location could be near one of many other restricted areas including National Parks, National Forests, Military Bases, No Fly Zones, etc. Know where you can and cannot fly and be honest with your client. Often it is certainly possible to get airspace permission, but it just takes time, so try and get your shooting location as soon as you can from your client. Don’t make the mistake of knowingly flying in a restricted area, as that can only lead to problems down the road.

In addition to checking the airspace of your shooting location, it is always best to physically scout your location if at all possible. Show up a day early and get a lay of the land. See where they want you to fly, recognize and identify hazards that may make your job that much harder (power lines, tall trees, etc), and become familiar with where you will be flying. Even better, pop your drone up before the shooting day and become familiar with your surroundings. Once in the air, things look MUCH different than on the ground – so anything you can do to be prepared is a plus.

3) Know How to Fly

This isn’t a joke. I’m serious. Like… dead serious. If you are being hired to fly a drone in return for money, by definition this makes you a professional drone pilot. If you are a professional drone pilot, KNOW HOW TO FLY YOUR DRONE. You wouldn’t believe the amount of horror stories we hear from directors who tried to save on the budget by hiring a drone crew that was half the price, only to find out that the drone pilot crashed halfway through the first shot because he didn’t know how to fly. I can’t begin to imagine the audacity of someone who purchases a drone, passes their part 107 test, never learns to fly, then shows up on set and expects to get great footage for a client. That’s like throwing on a jersey and stepping on the court with LeBron – after never having touched a basketball – it’s not going to end well. Don’t worry tho… flying a drone really has become incredibly easier in the last few years with advances in GPS holding autopilots and other technology.

So, the best thing you can do is fly your drone for practice as often as you can. How much? As much as humanly possible! If you want to get good at flying, my personal recommendation is at least 3 flights per day every day. Learn how to fly sideways, nose in (where the controls become backwards), learn to fly in high winds, learn to fly with distractions, learn to fly with someone talking to you the whole time, etc. The better pilot you become, the easier your life will become as a professional drone pilot.

4) Know Your Equipment Inside and Out

This next one goes hand in hand with knowing how to fly: know your equipment. Understand how your drone works, what are its strengths, what is its flight envelope, what is its flight time, etc. If your aircraft has GPS hold (meaning you can achieve a hands-off hover), understand its limitations. Will it work inside? If not, does it have other means of achieving a hands-off hover? Does it have return to home? If so, is the return to home height set so it will clear the trees around you?

Having a detailed understanding of your drone is absolutely vital to the success of your drone service business. The best way to learn about your drone is to fly as much as possible and become as familiar with it as you can. Try its features, push your comfort limits on your own time (not on the job), and seek out help from online communities when you have a question.

5) Bring Spares… of Everything

As they say… “If ya got one, ya got none”. I can personally attest to this and highly encourage any drone service company to have multiples of everything on set. This means don’t show up to a shoot with only one drone, one battery, and one set of propellers. If you are indeed serious about this, get a second drone, have an arsenal of batteries charged and ready to go on the day, bring spare propellers, and just about anything else you can imagine. Put a toolbox together for each drone, having spare parts for just about anything that is on the drone. In the 10 years I have been in the drone service business, I have seen everything from ESC’s (Electronic Speed Controllers) to landing gear retracts fail on set. I’ve seen battery connectors break, chargers go up in flames, and drones get ran over by cars (yes, really). A well prepared drone team will have the right tools and spares to fix practically anything that breaks on set. If it can’t be fixed, at least you have a backup.

6) Show Up Early, Give Yourself Plenty of Time

Because you are dealing with high-end professional cutting-edge technology, you should give yourself the best chance of success at all times. This means if your client asks you to be ready to fly at 9am, be there at 8am and give yourself an hour to assemble your drone & home base. Have your tables set up, your chargers plugged in ready to go, and your spares on stand-by. As I have found, once we start filming, it is usually non-stop until a lunch break. Setting up early allows you to take your time, go through the mission at hand with the client, and will get the shoot started on the right foot.

7) Fly Safely

(This should definitely be #1!) This may sound like common sense… but do your best to fly safely at all times. If you are the pilot, you are the last line of defense between your drone and an accident waiting to happen. Be aware of your surroundings, know where people are, be cognizant of the weather and other factors, be vigilant! As I pilot, I am always scanning for anything that could pose a risk to the drone and in turn, the rest of the team.

In addition,if you are flying in a high pressure scenario (like filming some scenes for an action movie or surveying a large container ship while flying over the ocean in high winds), don’t forget your basic rules. Don’t fly over people, don’t fly over crowds, and don’t fly out of your comfort zone. If a director asks you to fly in between two trees that are 3 feet apart, and your drone is 2.5’ wide… it is ok to say no! Sometimes the client will ask for more than I’m willing to give, and it’s ok to politely deny a request if you feel it is in the best interest of the drone and the production to do it a different way.

8) Be Honest with the Client… But You Don’t Have to Tell Him Everything

After doing this for so long, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen machines break for no reason, firmwares lock us out from flying due to a mandatory update, radio controllers break on set because of a crew member’s mis-step, you name it, it has happened on set. Accidents happen, and we all know it.

So, if you are out flying at the job site on a windy day, and your drone accidentally gets blown off of the table and breaks an arm upon landing, it is ok to tell your client. Most importantly, be sure to tell them your solution to this problem in the same sentence. Because you have a backup, this particular incident isn’t a problem, right! 🙂  Be transparent. If your memory card issues a corrupt warning halfway through a flight and you notice it… tell them. Most clients would much rather you bring it down, reset, and go back up – then to blatantly be ignorant of the fact and waste everyone’s time.

Likewise, you don’t have to tell your client everything. For example, if your generator quits halfway through a shoot and you don’t have a spare- do what it takes to get those batteries charged. Pop the hood of your truck, start it up and get cranking! At the end of the day, the client just wants results. Do whatever it takes to make it happen and don’t bother your client with the small instances that occur during shooting.

9) Be Professional

Even though you are doing something super cool for a job, it’s still in your best interest to be professional at times. Show up on time with your gear in tip-top shape, be dressed appropriately (an embroidered shirt with your logo is always a plus!), introduce yourself to the client and the rest of the crew, and be ready to go. Remember, this is work, even though flying drones can provide great enjoyment recreationally. Many times, the client will know exactly what they want you to capture. If you are doing a cell phone tower inspection, shoot what they want and only what they want. If you are filming a movie, get the shot they want. At the end of the day, you are a hired gun and you are there solely to provide a service to them.

10) Be Nice!

I put this one last, but it should really be #1 on the list (OK, maybe these should all be tied at #1)… Be nice! Often times on movie sets in particular, there are a hundred people all coming together to make magic happen on the big screen. Everyone is there to put their best foot forward and create something incredible. Nobody wants things to go poorly, but things happen. Tempers sometimes fly and humans will be humans. Often, the rest of the crew will be extremely impressed with your gear and will want to tell you all about the drone they just bought for their kid’s birthday. Show your client & crew how your drone works, teach them, and be a good ambassador to our industry. After all, you are flying a drone for a living! What’s not to like about that?

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I hope this was helpful to you all! If anyone has a question regarding how to get started or anything else, feel free to contact me at any time!

Happy Flying everyone,

Bobby Watts