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After a few months with your drone, you probably know the ropes. You’ve practiced how to fly smoothly and safely, and you’ve taken a few cool pictures. Maybe you’re getting so good at this that your cousin wants to pay you to take her engagement photos. Or your friend hires you to take an establishing shot for his short film.
But before you can make money with your drone, you have to become a certified remote pilot. Here’s what you need to do to safely and legally fly a drone for money.
Register your drone
The Federal Aviation Administration refers to drones as “unmanned aircraft systems.” All devices that weigh over 0.55 pounds must be registered with the FAA if you plan to make money with them. You can complete this process online if your aircraft weighs less than 55 pounds. If it weighs more than that, you’ll have to fill out a paper form.
This step is important: Unregistered drones can incur civil penalties with fines of up to $27,500, or criminal penalties with fines of up to $250,000 or up to three years of jail time. Registration costs $5 per aircraft.
After you fill out a registration form, you’ll receive an identification number for your drone. The number must be displayed somewhere on the aircraft. Registration is valid for three years, after which you must renew it.
Get a license
You need to get certified if you plan on flying a drone for money.
The FAA has three main requirements for flying your drone for commercial purposes under the Part 107 rule, also known as the “small UAS rule.” You must:
Be at least 16 years old
Pass a written aeronautical knowledge test, which includes questions related to restrictions and regulations, as well as emergency and maintenance procedures
Pass a background check by the Transportation Security Administration
The written tests can be taken at locations across the country, and cost about $150.
If you meet these requirements, the FAA will email you a temporary, printable certification that you can use until your permanent one arrives in the mail.
Follow the guidelines
Getting certified means you can start making money as a drone pilot, but it also means you have to follow more guidelines than a recreational flyer. The FAA says that those flying for work must:
Operate in class G airspace, which is uncontrolled airspace that isn’t at flight level or near airport operations
Keep the drone within their line of sight
Fly below 400 feet
Fly in the daytime
Fly at 100 mph or less
Give manned aircraft the right of way
Drone pilots also aren't allowed to fly over people or from a moving vehicle.
These restrictions become a problem if you’re monitoring a private property at night or filming a city skyline. You can apply to the FAA for a waiver for certain guidelines. Once you submit a request, the agency may contact you with more questions. Most requests are addressed within 90 days.
After these processes are complete, you’re free to apply for and take work with your drone. With your certification, you can do:
Wedding photo shoots
Aerial photography for a real estate company
Agricultural mapping, or taking images to help farmers monitor the health of their crops
Aerial inspection for construction companies
Like any job, some positions require more experience than others. Some may require additional certifications or equipment, like a Light Detection and Ranging camera for certain kinds of crop imaging. You can find drone pilot opportunities on traditional job websites like Glassdoor and Indeed.
After taking these steps, no matter the job, you can take on contracts with the knowledge that you’re doing it legally.