Drone entrepreneurs take flight as costs fall and money-making rises

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CNBC Disruptor 50

Drone entrepreneurs take flight as costs fall and money-making rises

A drone flies near the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Getty Images

There's never been a better time to go droning.

Rising varieties, advancing technology and falling costs are making drones flexible, specialized and ubiquitous. New drones, like the $499 DJI Spark, are heralding a wave of affordable, high-quality drones that are simple to use. It's easy for anyone to make a drone fly — and becoming easier to make money from the technology.

  • First, you will need to make a small investment

    It still takes money to make money. The first step in becoming a drone entrepreneur is to make a small investment.

    If you're looking to fly for anything other than fun, the FAA requires all pilots to have a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate. Any drone more than 0.55 lbs must also be registered with the FAA. While a recent ruling has thrown the FAA's authority into flux, "best practice is to comply with FAA regulations," said Christopher Beall, an attorney at Fox Rothschild who specializes in drone litigation.

    Then learn to fly well, as in really well. Know your drone inside and out, what it's built for and how it flies. Drones built for filming (stable with a high-quality camera but slow) are very different from racing drones (built for durability and speed) and surveying drones (designed to carry specialized equipment, like a LIDAR unit).

    Start-up costs: $150 (for the license); $5 (for each drone registration)

    Tayler Mongiovi flies a DJI drone at the Day of Drones in Liberty Science Center, NJ.
    Mike Juang | CNBC
  • Start shooting photos and videos

    Take it out for a spin and see what you can photograph.

    "Fantastic drone footage doesn't necessarily need to be traditional aerial or 'top-down' style," said drone photographer and Spacial founder Will Chatham. "Often, the best drone videos are ones that break this mold."

    Videographer Tim Sessler, for instance, uses a drone fitted with a zoom camera to create a "dolly zoom" (also called the "Vertigo effect," after the Hitchcock classic).

    Make interesting enough videos and you might even be able to win prizes with your work. Just be sure the work is solid: Festivals are rare, and your entry will compete against pros and industry veterans. The New York City Drone Film Festival awards prizes like a $17,500 Alta 8 drone and is currently offering a $5,000 grant to a director every month to make a film. The Peugeot Drone Film Festival in Europe will sponsor a winner to create a drone film for six weeks and puts a DJI drone, travel stipend and two cars at the winner's disposal.

    Drone video websites like AirVuz (think YouTube for drones) allow you to set up donation and tip buttons and can even get you hired for freelance filming assignments.

    Payout: Freelance filming opportunities; festival grants and prizes that can run to the thousands of dollars

    A large drone at the 2017 New York City Drone Film Festival.
    Mike Juang | CNBC
  • Fly commercially

    From Amazon package deliveries to scanning farms for increased crop yield, commercial drones are finding niches in every field.

    "Many of the industrial applications of [drones] are being adopted by survey and engineering firms," said Jordan Rising, director of flight and technology at commercial drone specialists Flight Evolved. "Most of these companies are hiring pilots who can likely expect to make between $50,000 and $70,000, depending on their expertise and the equipment they are operating."

    Many of the drone pilots who can command the upper salary range are ex-helicopter pilots, not novices. Weekend drone gigs, or contract work, can net $2,500 to $7,000 per job, depending on the type of role. Specialized drone job boards, like Dronebase.com, are a good place to start, says Tyler Mason of AirVuz. "Some industries (i.e. real estate) will post on the site that they're looking for pilots, and pilots can then accept the jobs from the Dronebase website."

    Camera drones are being used to capture dramatic real estate videos for the residential real estate sales market, an example of growing types of paid freelance work available to drone pilots.

    Payout: $2,500 to $70,000, depending on experience and expertise

    Workhorse
  • Win a drone race and become a sponsored pilot

    How does a $100,000 contract sound?

    An easy way to score a big payout is to start competing in drone races and hopefully win races and sponsorships.

    "It's allowed [pilots] to quit their jobs and do what they do full-time," DRL co-founder and CEO Nick Horbaczewski said in an interview with CNBC earlier this year. Dominate the global field and you might even score the $100,000 contract, plus sponsorships from big technology firms such as Samsung.

    Even social media companies like AirVuz and framemakers like FloRotoRs sponsor pilots, helping defray the cost of parts like frames and spare propellers. Beware — races are fast (up to 60 mph), crashes are fierce, and replacement parts are a must.

    Payout: Up to $100,000

    Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that The New York City Drone Film Festival is currently offering a $5,000 grant to a director every month to make a film.

    Professional drone racers with the Drone Racing League laugh during a race.
    Courtesy of Drone Racing League