Career, So You Want My Job?

Want to be a Drone Pilot?

December 1, 2014

Last December, Amazon announced Prime Air, a drone-based delivery service. Initially, most of the tech world reacted with disbelief. Surely this was just a PR stunt? Drone delivery just wasn’t technically possible, let alone legal or commercially viable?

Well, if you were one of those skeptics, prepare to eat your words.

In the last two weeks, we’ve seen job postings from both Amazon and Facebook looking for drone pilots and engineers. Google recently acquired drone company Titan Aerospace. Meanwhile, San Francisco startup QuiQui aims to roll out drone deliveries of pharmaceuticals. Any time you have three massive companies like that investing in a technology and Silicon Valley startups getting involved as well, that’s a pretty clear indicator that something big is about to happen.

According to Joshua Ziering, founder of QuiQui, the commercial case is clear. “We’re delivering lightweight, high-value items that people need quickly, and at a time when they don’t want to leave their houses. But deliveries are just the start of it. Think of search and rescue, or other emergency use. Or inspections: you could inspect every inch of a roller coaster, a bridge or a train track every day without having to send people out. The potential uses for drones are huge.

On the technology front, the case is mostly proven, for both remotely piloted and fully autonomous drones.

“Remote piloting will get Facebook and Amazon to market faster than using autonomous drones,” says Ziering. “But Google has already successfully demonstrated a fully autonomous delivery drone. There are still issues to be solved, both in terms of navigation and urban terrain, as well as insurance and legislation, but it will happen. It might take one year, it might take five, but it will take off.”

Currently, the FAA prohibits the use of drones for commercial purposes, but they’re expected to change their stance some time next year and allow lightweight aircraft to fly at altitudes of up to 400 feet. When those regulations change, there will be plenty of companies poised to take advantage of that.

It’ll be a big industry, too. The Association for Unmanned Vehicles International estimates that over the next ten years, there will be demand for as many as 100,000 jobs in the drone business. Not all will be pilots, but still, that’s a lot of jobs.

Drone jobs are already out there

Despite the regulations in the US, some entrepreneurs are already making good money from their skills. According to Ziering, good drone pilots can earn up to $1000 a day. Al Palmer, director of the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training at the University of North Dakota, notes that typical rates are around $50/hour, well over $100,000 per annum.

“When this opens up,” says Ziering, “then there will be real demand for pilots. There will be a lot of competition for the best people, and we’ll inevitably see rates go up.” Eventually, as more trained pilots enter the job market, there will be some stability, but the first few years will be quite a gold rush for anyone who’s ready to bring the right skills to the table now.

What skills will you need?

It is almost inevitable that the FAA will require drone pilots to have a pilot’s license, and all the current job postings reflect that. “That makes sense,” notes Ziering. “You’re sharing airspace with commercial flights, so you should be aware of the rules and regulations governing commercial flying.” If you study hard, you can get your pilot’s license in three to six months, and it’ll cost you between $7,000 and $9,000. That’s not a small sum, but you’ll recoup it quickly.

In addition, most employers are demanding a degree in aerospace engineering. That may seem like overkill, but Ziering points out that it can be a major advantage. “You really need to understand your aircraft, and how it handles. You’re not present in it, so you need a deep theoretical understanding of what’s happening up there.” In addition, most drone pilots are responsible for maintaining their aircraft personally. “Just like any other pilot, you have to check the tires, check the airframe, and make sure it’s airworthy, so you need that mechanical prowess,” says Ziering. And lastly, since the drone world is changing so fast, a solid grounding in the fundamental technology will help you keep your skills and knowledge up to date.

Lastly, there’s one more skill that is rarely listed on the job sheets, but which Ziering regards as indispensable.

“You’ve got to be a good pilot,” he observes. “It’ll take you a year to get proficient. Develop your radio control skills, and really get to know your aircraft.”

If you really want to develop your drone skills and prepare yourself for a career in this field, then check out AUVSI’s 13th Annual Student Unmanned Air Systems (SUAS) Competition. The competition challenges the students to design, fabricate,and demonstrate a system capable of completing a specific and independent aerial operation. Registration closes December 18, 2014, so hurry!