A career as a professional drone pilot has become more and more appealing in the last few years, driven by improvements in drone technology that have made them cheaper, more capable, and easier to operate. The numbers support this – as of the end of 2018, there were already more than 120,00 licensed commercial drone pilots in the US.
All these stats beg the question: how profitable is a career in drone flight? Is it still worth the investment, considering how competitive the field has become? To help you make a decision, here’s a quick rundown of how much drone pilots can make in 2020 according to several job posting websites.
What is the average pay for drone pilots?
Professional drone services are a very young field so there aren’t exactly any salary standards in place. The way it works right now is that most drone pilots charge rates based on their level of experience, the investment they have made on their gear, the specific field they are working in, and how much profit they are targeting. In a way, the field is still very decentralized and is still heavily leaning on freelance gigs.
Compounding the lack of existence of standards is that the rates for drone services can vary widely across different industries. For instance, the hourly rate for professional drone mapping services can be much higher than what a drone photographer can charge. There are even cases where rates can vary across different states and cities, mostly because the local market dictates how much the standard or competitive rates are.
This means that the average rate, as declared by the various posting websites, may be very different from what you can charge in reality. It’s useful as a gauge for how much you can charge when you’re still early in your career, but the goal should be to go beyond the average eventually.
There are two job titles in job listing site PayScale that are relevant to our topic: Drone Pilot and UAV Pilot.
The Drone Pilot title has an average salary that’s a bit more on the conservative side. Based on an hourly rate, a Drone Pilot can earn $23.04 on average. This corresponds to roughly $51,725 annual salary. The numbers are a bit skewed by the fact that more than 70% of the responders were Drone Pilots who were in the early phase of their careers. Based on the data, a Drone Pilot with less than a year of experience can charge $20.70 per hour but can earn more than $26.49 per hour if they have more than five years of experience.
The estimated salary for a UAV Pilot is significantly higher – about $75,000 per year on average. The higher estimated salary for this job title was probably caused by more respondents who were in the middle phase of their careers. According to the data, a UAV pilot with one to four years of experience can earn around $51,000 in a year – roughly equivalent to the average numbers for a Drone Pilot. The great news is that a UAV Pilot with more than five years of experience has an average earning capacity of $99,820 annually. The numbers get even higher for UAV Pilots with ten or more years of experience.
The summary for the UAV Pilot in Salary.com is extremely useful because of the site’s capacity to filter data according to location, level of experience, and level of education. Overall, the average earnings of a UAV Pilot in the US amounts to $78,389 annually. The lower 10% percentile earns $39,571 while the upper 10% percentile earns $109,506.
Those with less than two years of experience earn around $70,671, which is almost $8000 less than the average earnings for the industry. On the other hand, those with 10 to 14 years of experience can earn $82,522 annually on average.
Education does not play a big role in determining how much a UAV Pilot can earn. Someone without a degree will earn $74,684 on average while someone with a Ph.D. will only earn a slightly higher $78,389. Based on this statistic, experience is much more important in determining your earning potential as a UAV Pilot.
Location also influences the different average rates of a UAV Pilot. For instance, UAV Pilots in California earn $87,561 on average annually. In contrast, those in Alabama earn a much lower amount – only $73,451 on average. Swinging it the other way again, UAV Pilots in New York have average annual earnings of $84,112. This highlights the importance of looking at the rates of the local market when you’re starting a drone business to determine how you can price your services competitively.
There are three job titles in Glassdoor.com that are worth looking into: UAV Pilot, Drone Pilot, and UAV Operator.
The UAV Pilot job title seems to be the more lucrative one. Based on job postings and data from seven employers, the average earnings of a UAV Pilot are about $82,622 annually. The whole range of salaries based on their data is somewhat narrow – from $73,000 to $115,000.
What’s more interesting is that there are a few employers that seem to be paying premium rates for the services of a UAV Pilot. On the top of the list is the US Air Force, who pays a UAV Pilot anything between $112,000 to $119,000 annually. Two other companies, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, offer salaries to UAV Pilots in a similar range.
The average earnings for the Drone Pilot are a bit more conservative at only $59,308 annually. Again, the US Air Force shows up in the list of employers who hire Drone Pilots at a higher than average rate. However, there is simply too little data on the salaries of a Drone Pilot to come up with any valid conclusion.
The UAV Operator job title has the highest number of contributions in Glassdoor.com, so it’s an interesting topic for analysis. With more than 20 data points, the sub-section on UAV Operator may be the best representative of how much can be earned in this industry.
Based on the data, the average annual earnings for a UAV Operator is only a sobering $35,569. This is definitely on the low side compared to the earnings for a UAV Pilot and Drone Pilot. Among the list of companies paying relatively low rates are a few prominent names, including the US Army, US Marine Corps, and PrecisionHawk.
What does the large variation of earnings across the different job titles mean? It’s difficult to say because, on the surface, these job titles seem to be for similar roles. However, there may be responsibilities unique to each role as determined by the employer that we cannot see.
If you’re still at the stage where you’re not sure if being a professional drone pilot is worth it, then it’s still hard to grasp what your earning potential is. There’s really no standard rate, and the field is still very young and dynamic. The best thing to do would be to look at what nearby drone pilots are earning and come up with your own average.
Based on our data, there are two things that greatly influence how much you can charge: the type of services you are offering and your level of experience. When it comes to the service, the key is specialization. If you want to earn more, you have to be offering a service that not many drone pilots can offer.