Building a Drone Photography Business

First, the new Part 107 rules don’t become effective until late August, so for now a Section 333 Grant of Exemption letter plus an FAA-issued Pilot Certificate is still required for commercial flight with a drone.

Training:

There will be a surge of businesses offering drone training, including mine: http://www.treetop.academy (still in development).
However there are four training needs.
1. Ground School – learning what is needed to pass the written exam for the Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate with a small UAS rating.  That’s a mouthful, so let’s just call it a Drone Pilot’s Certificate.  (The FAA does not issue licenses).  The written exam for a new pilot will be almost as comprehensive as the written exam for a Sports Pilot or Private Pilot applicants.  Readers can get a peek at sample questions from the FAA.  If one wishes to get a head start, then take a pilot ground school.  Some community colleges offer pilot ground school courses or you could go to a local General Aviation airport and look for a sign reading “Learn to Fly”.  You will need to find a convenient FAA Authorized Testing Center to take the written exam, and many of them are co-located with a pilot training service where you can inquire about enrolling in a ground school.  There are also many pilot ground schools online, some free and some paid.  In a pilot ground school you will learn a bit more than what is needed to pass the FAA Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate written exam.  I really don’t think there will be questions on Cabin Atmosphere Control Systems in the UAS exam, but you may learn about it in a pilot ground school.

2. What Drone to buy – This mostly depends on two factors; your mission and what is your budget.  The333.org has examined 4970 Exemptions through 3/17/2016 and the data contains 902 Models of UAS from 256 Manufacturers, so there is no simple answer.
Budget: I strongly recommend buying a relatively cheaper drone (relative to your main camera drone) to learn the basics of flying.  You will crash, so buy spare props.  You also don’t want to risk an expensive camera and gimbal while learning to fly.  (It is not unusual for the camera and gimbal to be valued far more than the aircraft).  Fortunately, almost all commercially available drones use the same control configuration (left-stick is throttle and rudder/yaw, right stick is X-Y position). I would start with something in the $200 price range like the Hubsan X4, or look for something used on e-Bay.  Why not a sub-$100 drone?  Simply that they are often too light and too sensitive to control stick inputs for basic training.  When you transition to a heavier drone, you will be surprised with the sluggish response from the added load.  Heavier drones are also more stable.  My first drone was a DIY hexacopter from 3D-Robotics, and the learning crashes were expensive.  I bought a DJI Phantom 2 and haven’t flown the hex since.
Mission: There are many mission-specific drones.  I would not try to do a mapping mission with my DJI Phantom drone because the camera field is too wide, nor would I want to spend $30,000 on an Octocopter with a RED cinema camera attached to shoot Real Estate photos.  At the very least, you want a camera with at least a 1440 resolution and a three-axis gimbal.  This would give you pretty good quality photos and videos for most missions.  Personally, I like the DJI line and can recommend their Inspire or Matrix drones. Why DJI? since the company owns more than half of the drone market, support and replacement parts won’t be difficult to find. (Or afford).

3. Insurance – What a can of worms.  If you have general liability insurance, you might have some liability coverage for any damage caused by your drone.  Odds are, you don’t.  As the market matures we will see more competition in drone insurance, but for now almost all drone insurance is through conventional aircraft insurance policies and you can expect to pay $1,000 per year per aircraft.  Aviation insurance comes in two flavors, liability and hull.  Liability is a must-have as many clients will require proof of insurance.  Hull typically covers the aircraft itself, and notably NOT the camera, gimbal and other accessories attached to the aircraft.  Aircraft insurers consider those as personal property and not part of the aircraft.  As I said, a can of worms.  (Some manufacturers are selling “insurance” with their aircraft, but it’s really just like an extended warranty on your refrigerator.  There is no liability coverage provided).  I have come across one insurer, Unmanned Risk (http://unmannedrisk.com/) that has a new product that interests me.  They are experimenting with an insurance program that sets rates according to how much you fly according to a data recorder you attach to your drone.  Not unlike Snapshot from Progressive Auto Insurance.  I actually expect that an auto insurer may get into drone insurance in the next year or two as the volume will be too large to ignore and the risk too low.  (There’s been more than a million hours of flight of these small aircraft and yet there has not been one documented serious accident in the US – not one.  There are on average three General Aviation aircraft crashes every day).

4. Specific Mission Training – Flying a drone for tower and bridge inspections is completely different from real-estate or agriculture missions.  Flight by civil authorities (city, state, etc) has even more legal prerequisites to flight, so their training would be more intense.  Often if you buy a mission-specific aircraft, like the eBee Ag Drone, you can expect the seller will also offer training with the aircraft purchase.  for the smaller drone operators who plan to learn on-the-job, all I can say is practice, practice, practice.  there are probably a thousand photos of my home from all the practice flights I’ve made.  Experiment with different altitudes and distances then look at the resulting photos for composition and framing – no different than ground-based photography, but more challenging.  Which is why you charge a premium for drone photography.

Other business concerns:

Pricing your Service – As with most service industries, you charge what the customer will pay, based on the value to the client.  A farmer will happily pay $5,000 for an aerial survey of his fields with an IR camera that records the health of the crops that only look green to a conventional camera.  There are hundreds of price calculators all over the web, but they all take into account the cost of doing business (equipment, insurance, amortization, salaries and office expenses) and the value to the client.  You will never grow a business by starting out cheap – “because you are young/new/inexperienced/working from mom’s garage” (choose one).  If you start out cheap, those are your clients forever. Cheap.  In my personal experience, clients who are only looking for the lowest bidder are most often the most problematic clients.  If you have an existing photography business then you should calculate your additional cost for operating a drone and roll that into your existing price structure.  Resist the urge to price your service just a little lower than the competition.  Chasing the bottom line can only end up one way – you hit the bottom and quit the business.  Price your services where you actually make a profit greater than simply putting your cash into bonds.  If you have to offer a discount to gain new clients, make it a short-term special.  Have you ever walked into a department store and not seen “Sale” signs everywhere?  No.  So, don’t be afraid of higher published prices.

What should you have in your Terms of Service? – flying a drone for business creates a new set of service concerns.  Weather becomes more problematic than ground-based photography.  Rain and snow won’t affect the drone flight, but get one drop of precipitation on the lens and the whole shoot is ruined.  Under Part 107, permission for operations near airports and over crowds becomes easier to obtain, but it’s not assured and not automatic.  You may ask the FAA for a waiver for any proscribed flight.  The FAA is working on an online waiver application application (is that redundant?)  where you present your case for the waiver and document how you will maintain safety.  So for your TOS, you should be prepared to reschedule due to precipitation or high winds that would exceed your drone’s capabilities.  You should also be prepared to terminate a planned mission if permission to fly can’t be obtained, and I think a full refund of deposits would be appropriate.  As with ground based projects, how do you currently handle equipment failures?  Do you carry a second camera? Should you have a backup drone?

Be ahead of the expected competition.

When Part 107 rules are finalized there will be a flood of barnstormers in the field.  Most will fail as a business, but if you are practiced, disciplined and ready to conduct business first with flight a business asset that you offer to the client, then your business will survive the initial wave.

If your clients want to buy their own drone and get their own Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate, fine.  Let them.  Even help them.  Offer to train them (for a fee, of course). It’s no different from a real estate sales person shooting their own MLS curb photos.  I think clients who want to shoot their own drone photos will be a minority. Most will drop out as they learn how much study is required to pass the written exam.  Some will drop out as they discover that the $300 drone from Amazon just can’t compete with your $5,000 system for quality.  Some will quit because owning, maintaining and keeping proficient with a drone is simply not their core-competence. These will be your best clients in the future.

Good luck and please keep me apprised of your progress toward developing a drone business.  (Post a comment or send me an email).

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One thought on “Building a Drone Photography Business

  1. Pingback: How Do Real Estate Photographers Get Started In Drone Photography and Video? | Realty World Commercial

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