If you’ve ever wanted to get in on the proverbial ground floor of an industry, now might just be the time to do so with drones. Providing an aerial view can serve a wide range of purposes and industries. And the investment to start a drone-based business is relatively modest.
Entry-level drones can be fairly cheap — it would make sense to learn on one of those — with some running less than $100. For a business you will likely need to get something more sophisticated. High-end drones can easily cost $4,000 to $5,000 and up, but there are entry-level models with high-resolution cameras costing about $500 that could work for most commercial uses.
For more ideas on getting started with drones, check out: “Exploring the World of Drones? Check Out this Buying Guide.”
Once you have a drone — and know how to use it — you’ll need a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (in addition to any business licenses required by your state or local government) before you can use it for commercial purposes. Details on getting them are on the FAA’s website. (The FAA has granted nearly 5,000 such licenses as of April 21. But the site notes that there is currently a backlog of requests.)
After you get the federal paperwork in line, check into local laws that may restrict or prohibit their use, or forbid you from flying them in certain places.(Whatever you do, don’t fly over the house of the man in Kentucky who shot down a drone last year.) Also keep in mind that deliveries via drone are currently not allowed in the United States — although Amazon, Walmart and China’s Alibaba are exploring the idea. For individual drone operators, the business possibilities now generally involve using them to look at things.
Now that you’ve made the government happy, here are eight ideas for drone-related businesses:
1. Aerial surveying
Photo (cc) by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
This one is a classic example of a new technology disrupting an existing business model. Aerial surveying is already used in a number of professions including map making, agriculture, real estate and construction, among others. These require detailed studies of sometimes large tracts of land that are best made from above. While the old model would use helicopters or other aircraft, a drone can do the same job for a lot less expense. Plus, it flies slower than most other types of aircraft and lower, which can sometimes allow it to pick out more detail than larger aircraft.
2. News gathering
Photo (cc) by Cameron Stevens
Drones can go places that might be too risky for even the most intrepid reporter, and send back live video of the action. While it might not be realistic to send one into a tornado and expect to see it again, they could get views of fires, traffic accidents or riots to name just a few things.
What about sports photography? Most professional sports teams tightly control and credential the people and organizations they allow to photograph their games, though at least one baseball team has used drones during spring training. But starting out, you might want to focus on smaller-time sports. High school teams or other youth sports, some college sports or even things like backcountry snowboarding could make use of drones. You may be able to sell drone photos to the athletes, their parents or the local media.
Starting your own news site might be more than you want to take on, but you can start by reaching out to local newspapers or TV stations that might consider hiring you and your drone on a contract basis, or buy images on a one-off basis.
Photo (cc) by Heather Harvey
Think of those clear days at the beach where a low-flying aircraft zips by towing a banner about the local crab shack. Now, think about your drone doing the towing instead. Just make sure you don’t fly too low — the salt and sand are bound to be bad news for those little rotors. Drone-captured videos can also help with marketing. A hotel in a prime location might be able to make use of a sweeping aerial shot of its grounds, for example.
Photo (cc) by Richard Wiseman
There are miles and miles of pipelines and electrical transmission wires crisscrossing the country that need to be inspected regularly. Once again a drone can, in some cases, do the job more cheaply than a helicopter or people on foot.
5. Real estate
Photo (cc) by Ben Freedman
Real estate sales could benefit from aerial pictures, particularly for high-end properties with acreage, multiple buildings and amazing views. It could also be used to help prospective buyers. If they are in the market to purchase a large site, a drone pass or two could help identify areas they might want to investigate before getting too deep into the deal.
Large commercial installations can make use of a drone pilot to keep watch on their grounds at a fraction of the cost of a team of guards. One pilot can cover a large area quickly, and a thermal imaging camera can still be useful after dark. There’s also far less risk of confrontation for a drone operator whose unmanned aircraft spots a ne’er-do-well than if a guard spots him.
7. Wedding photographs
Photo (cc) by Carsten Schertzer
You can sell a person almost anything if you tell them it’s for a wedding — and indeed, the business of aerial wedding coverage is booming. Typically the aerial shots are done in addition to the traditional wedding photography, and are able to add a good sense of the setting, particularly for an outdoor or destination wedding. You might be able to subcontract with videographer or photographer to give them wide shots and fun images that they can’t get from the ground. A guide to drone wedding photography on BuzzFeed says that the typical rate is about $200 an hour or a set $700 fee. Just don’t fly too close during the vows or the toasts – no one wants the sound of the rotors to drown out the people.
8. Public service
Photo (cc) by Daisuke TSUDA
There are other ways to make an important contribution with your drone, such as aiding with search and rescue. In the aftermath of a disaster, a drone can zip in and out of dangerous areas, helping guide rescue crews toward people in peril and away from unsafe structures. One drone operator in Wisconsin even used his to help find a man with dementia who’d wandered off.
With the explosion of this new technology, there’s definitely lot of fun to be had, and increasingly, money. The sky — and your imagination — are the limit.
Are you intrigued by drones and their money-making prospects? If you have one, how do you use it? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page.