Part 3: The state of the UAV industry in Australia
It’s still tempting to think that buying a drone and flying it commercially is some kind of get rich quick scheme, or at least a way to toss off the yoke of a 9-5 job and do something you really enjoy for a living. It’s true that some UAV operators are achieving that goal, but they are in a minority.
There is no “drone boom” in Australia. Interest in using UAVs commercially is certainly growing and we get more enquiries (and more types of enquiries) every day, but it is not growing at anything like the rate of creation of new UAV businesses in this country. You will not find people beating down your door to hire your drone, and most of the people who said they’d love to buy your aerial photos most probably won’t do so.
The UAV industry in Australia is shaping up like most other highly competitive business sectors (see Marketing 101 for more information). There are a small number of very successful operators who employ dozens of pilots and have invested millions of dollars in their operations to get to where they are today. Most of these operators have been in business for many years. At the other end of the market are literally thousands of small operators, some licensed and most not, who are competing for a very finite market filming weddings and real estate videos. In the middle are the usual array of wannabes and niche operators who either have plenty of capital to build a business that will compete with the big players one day, or are focusing on specific drone activities requiring greater skills and knowledge.
Commercial drone operations is a knowledge-intensive and capital-intensive business. If you are not learning new skills all the time, developing advanced techniques and buying the latest drone and photographic technologies, you get left behind very quickly. If you’re a guy with a DJI Phantom and a passion for flying it, and not much more, you can set yourself up very cheaply as a sub-2kg operator but you’ll very quickly get left behind in this business. And if you happen to damage or lose your DJI Phantom, you’re out of business entirely until it’s repaired or replaced.
Even operating under sub-2kg rules, you’ll very quickly discover that you have two choices – either you operate illegally (outside the law) or you operate within a regime that has many rules and many competitors who will report you the moment they see you breaking those rules. For example, you need land-owner permission to fly on any private property, you need council permission to fly in most parks and reserves, and you need government agency permission to fly in forests and national parks, which includes most beaches. You can’t just over-fly roads, footpaths or neighbours’ homes to get to your destination or to get that great angle.
That drone you bought last year, the one you had to convince your wife would make you more money, was pretty much outdated by the time you got it out of the box and into the air. For example, if you bought a DJI Phantom 4 for $1600-2000 last Christmas, you might be shocked to know it’s already been discontinued. Two more models have been released since then, with better cameras and more features, and another is poised for release any day now that will eclipse both of those. If you’re still trying to compete with that Phantom 3 Pro you spent $2500 on a year ago, you might already be finding that operators with newer drones like the Phantom 4 Pro or the DJI Inspire are wowing your potential customers with 20 megapixel photos and 4K video to 6o FPS.
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