So you wanna be a drone pilot Part 4

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Part 4: It’s not just about flying a drone

This is Part 4 of a 6-part series. You might want to read Part 1 before you read this …

Launching fixed wing UAV in Beerwah

Tony Gilbert and Haydn Elliott from Queensland Drones get ready to launch the AgEagle at the Growcom UAV field day in Beerwah

The big fallacy in the commercial UAV business is that it’s about flying a drone and making money from it. After 18 months in this business I can tell you it’s not really about either of those things. It’s about being able to offer a product that provides a value that significantly outweighs its cost (and cost has a number of parameters including dollars, complexity, fit with existing business practice and potential added risk).

Being successful as a drone operator is about being able to deliver your product or service efficiently and consistently, to industry standards and within strict rules; and it’s about being able to run a business (manage your costs, pay your bills on time, meet reporting requirements, etc). And that’s without even thinking about all the additional rules and reporting requirements of operating as an ReOC holder or even as an RePL holder under someone else’s OC.

When I first started in this business I liked nothing more than getting out every spare minute I had to shoot spectacular sunrises and sunsets, capture amazing panoramic vistas and film stunning nature videos. That’s why I got into this business and it’s what I thought this business would be about.

I’m one of the “lucky ones” who’s managed to walk away from the drudgery of my desk job (and, as my wife might say, my $120,000 salary and benefits) to go full time in the UAV business. I’m the only one from my UAV pilots’ course last year who has managed to do that! So am I having fun yet?

These days I’m spending 20 hours a week on business development to make sure I have enough work to do next month; 20 hours a week sending out invoices, chasing payments, paying bills, doing BAS returns and maintaining tax records and 20 hours a week worrying about land-owner permissions, insurance notifications, CASA permission requests and completing flight reporting and aircraft maintenance routines. All that is before I get to fly an hour! By the time I’ve flown 10 hours capturing images and data, I have around 30 hours of image stitching, video editing and post-processing (much more if I’m doing ortho-mapping or 3d models) and another 10 hours each week of to and fro with clients making sure they’re happy. I also need to find time to attend and exhibit at field days and expos, attend and sometimes speak at industry events, conduct client demos and occasionally fraternise with my competitors.

Do I still find time to nip out and capture a stunning sunset? Not lately. Not even on the weekends as that’s precious time to spend crawling over Youtube videos and Facebook posts in professional UAV groups looking at what others are achieving and figuring out how they did it, trolling the technology sites to figure out what the “next big thing” will be to maintain my competitive edge, doing online training, updating mission control software and testing it for bugs, charging batteries and maintaining aircraft, and on and on it goes.

Do I still love what I do? Hell, yes, but not for the reasons I originally thought I would. I love it because I have a passion for running my own business (this my third or fourth, depending on how I count them). I love it because it challenges me every hour of every day to be the best I can be and to apply every bit of knowledge and experience I’ve acquired across my life to stay ahead of the pack. I love it because I find I can do things that 98% of people can’t. And I love it because what I create makes such a difference to my clients and their businesses.

Read Part 5 – It’s Not About Flying a Drone Either

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