Drone Industry Insiders Answer: Can You Make a Living?

With new regulations and more people than ever flying drones, is it still possible to break into the aerial videography market? Are there still paid opportunities out there?
We spoke to a couple of industry professionals who are making regular income with their equipment. In both cases, they started their companies before the recent drone boom. They told us how they began, what kind of clients they get, and a bit of advice for someone trying to break into the industry.

Watch: Do you have what it takes to start a video business?

The Drone Dudes, Los Angeles, CA

Matthew Feige is the Vice President of Drone Dudes. He tells us that the company was started more than a decade ago by his friend Andrew Petersen, who built his first drone from scratch. “He got a manual from Germany and parts from Korea and Japan and built his first drone.” He took the aircraft to action sports venues and made a name for himself in Southern California. He really got noticed when he became the first person to take a Red Cam to the sky in 2011.

As the business took off, Feige came on board to become the Chief Operating Officer and team manager. Their organization has dozens of big name clients. “We’re doing things like racing documentaries, car commercials, high-end architecture and we did a really interesting documentary with PBS that aired last December called ‘American Masters.’” The documentary featured 6K aerial footage from a Red Dragon flying over the work of architect Eero Saarinen. The documentary received critical acclaim and some of the footage has been added to the National Archives.

Feige thinks that in many ways, a bubble has burst in the industry, especially as it relates to Hollywood. He tells us that a lot changed after the FAA enacted more regulations. “Jobs dried up a little more as some of the more senior pilots began taking over because they had the proper credentials.” He says that the movie industry now relies mostly on a few companies and pilots.

He goes on to tell us that, in order to break in now, it might be best to look at other industries like surveying or architecture. He also says, “Law enforcement is also booming but the problem is that they are often restricted by government  budgets.”

Matthew’s best advice for someone who wants to break into aerial camera work is to go to film school or learn all you can about shooting first.

Matthew’s best advice for someone who wants to break into aerial camera work is to go to film school or learn all you can about shooting first. “You want to have an eye. You want to be a cinematographer to begin with.” He says that the drone is merely a tool like a tripod. “You have to be really good with camera settings. You have to be really good with framing, composition, everything.”

Vegas Helicam, Las Vegas, NV

In a similar way Marc Sanchez started Vegas Helicam in 2009 by making his gear. “I started in photography, shooting photos on the ground, but I really wanted to figure out another angle. I started by putting cameras in sailplanes and R/C planes.” That eventually led to the quad-copters and octo-copters that he uses today.

Sanchez tells us that his bread and butter is in construction monitoring projects. He uses drones to record large construction sites to make sure that the plan’s on schedule. He says that, like everything in the construction business, when times are slow, his business is slow, but currently business is booming. “It keeps me busy,” Sanchez says with a chuckle.

He would agree, in part, that the landscape of the drone industry has changed. “I think there is still a lot of opportunity. You just have to kind of be creative in how you find those opportunities.” He points out that resource management, agriculture and search and rescue are becoming open markets for drone work. “If you really are interested in flying a drone, you’re going to have to map your own way.”

 

The Vegas Helicam owner also says that, to get started you must get very familiar with the FAA regulations. “Get very familiar with part 107 of the FAA licensing. That is certainly important.” He tells us that it is no longer possible to pick up a quad-copter with a camera and start a business. To charge money for your services, you must follow the FAA’s rules.

Ready for Launch

Certainly, the skies have become more crowded. It is certainly possible to make a living with a drone, but as these professionals would tell us, training and diversification is the key. Get really good with your equipment. Learn to be a good shooter and a good pilot. Look for markets beyond the film and television industries.

To check out the kind of work that these companies do, go to www.dronedudes.com and www.vegashelicam.us. For more info on the regulations and certification required for commercial drone pilots, go to www.faa.gov/uas.

Jeff Chaves is the Chief Creative Officer of Grace Pictures Inc., which he co-owns with his wife, Peggy. He got his start as an Army Broadcaster in the 1980s and spent 12 plus years working in broadcasting. Jeff left broadcast television to pursue full-time ministry.

Jeff Chaves
Jeff Chaves was trained in video production in the Army and has been involved in the industry for more than 30 years. He and his wife run Grace Pictures Inc.