Ask LH: Is There A Career In Flying Drones?

Hi Lifehacker, Recently, I have spent a lot of time flying my drone around at the local park, and it has got me thinking; How do I make a career out of this?

There are lots articles online about how there are going to be more and more jobs in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry, but nothing about how to get any of them. After a brief web search, all I could turn up was a military role as a UAV pilot. Do I have to train as a pilot? (Expensive!) Any other alternatives or thoughts? Thanks, Drone Devotee

Dear DD,

The first thing you should probably do is bone up on the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR) to ensure you're not actually breaking any laws. The main things to be aware of is that you're not supposed to fly your drone near airports or over other people's private property. You will also be 100% liable for any damage your drone causes.

As to finding employment, the UAV industry is still in its infancy outside of military jobs. That said, it is quickly gaining traction in a range of verticals including TV reporting, meteorology, emergency services, farming, surveillance and commercial goods delivery.

Recent initiatives include the Zookal Flirtey drone, Amazon's PrimeAir drone, NSW Rural Fire Service UAVs and the Australian government's proposed coastline surveillance drones.

Whether any of these projects come to fruition remains to be seen however. Even if they do get past the development stage, there's no guarantee that they will require humans to control them in the traditional UAV sense. The technology is likely to be so different that your existing skills will be of little use. For example, the proposed government drones would be capable of reaching heights of 55,000 feet and would probably weigh more than 200kg; anyone in control of one of these babies would definitely need some kind of pilot's license.

On the other hand, the fact that this industry is just heating puts you in prime position to spruik your UAV knowledge to smaller start-ups. Various organisations such as Unmanned Systems Australia are looking for hobbyists to help them with testing and safety/risk assessment.

If you're serious about pursuing unmanned aerial vehicle control as a career, you should apply for a UAV controller certificate. You can find out what steps are involved by paying a visit to the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority's website.

We're also going to throw this question open to our readers — if there are any UAV aviators out there, let DD know how you got earned your 'wings' in the comments section below.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    Aerial photography!

      Was thinking this very same thing recently! Photos for real estate agents, surveys (land) and surf comps!

        There's definitely a market, I know at least one company that does purely that:

        When they turned up in a van and started flying quadcopters next to my office, I assumed they were just an enthusiast group. Instead, they were being paid to have way more fun than I was.

        From what I've briefly read on the CASA website, unless you go through the certification to become licensed, operating a drone for commercial purposes is against the law. I believe the licensing etc is also not cheap, and correct me if I'm wrong, there is also a yearly fee to maintain the licence.

        I'm sure real estate would be all over this already if they were allowed to. For now flying personal drones will just be a hobby.

        From CASA Website:
        Application costs
        The following costs are provided for guidance only, and the actual amount charged for the evaluation will depend on:

        - the complexity of your OC (Operator Certificate) application
        - the accuracy of your Operations Manual
        - travel requirements of our inspectors (flying operations and airworthiness) to assess your submission and visit your facilities.

        Application costs (Approximate cost)
        UAV controllers approval
        $160 (in effect your UA pilot's licence)
        OC approval process
        $5000 (worst case scenario for normal case applications. More complicated applications could incur additional fees)
        Renewals at the anniversary points
        (We issue initial licences for 1 year. Our plan is then to have 3 yearly renewals, but this has yet to be confirmed) $480 (without additional aircrafts or information)

        Please note that these are CASA's costs only. You will need to determine other costs like theory training and exams, purchase of your aircraft, insurance, etc.

          Yep. I've looked into this. You are absolutely right, license is required. The article really doesn't give a good indication of this point. I'm sure there are heaps of photographers who have considered this until they realise the startup costs.

          Then there is the maintenance and record keeping. You need to have clear maintenance plans and documentation, just like a real aircraft.

    There are several civil drone operators, like Dronemetrex as well as a number of other drone initiatives from Australian companies. best bet is to look at organisations like the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems ( and attend a couple of their events.

    To fly drones commercially, my rudimentary understanding is there are a number of qualifications you'll need to gain, including fixed wing theoretical, aeronautical communications, and possibly others.

    Check out They run courses for people buying their gear for commercial uses.

    Something I've taken a bit of interest in, but done nothing more than surfing. Just my 2c.

    Sign me up to be a drone pilot as long as I can fly one only in warmer months over a beach with an excellent camera lens on it.

    I'm sure RED Entertainment may have an opportunity for you.

    Seriously, as someone who isn't one of the idiots that wants to ruin the world with privacy invading crap, I think that all drones should be registered and have a clearly visible number printed on them, and also a id chip that can be scanned if it is too far away (purpose made, cheap hand scanner/pointer to buy for anyone who wants one, at the same places where drones are sold)

    "You will also be 100% liable for any damage your drone causes."

    That's a major issue. You're basically piloting a flying lawnmower which, unlike a model plane, can be completely unpredictable if anything goes wrong, and is capable of pretty severe damage. I know a lot of model flight clubs offer public liability insurance as part of their memberships, but for commercial purposes you'd probably need a pretty decent policy.

      Although flying lawnmowers look pretty fun

    Mining, in space, on the moon, and of volcanoes. If you upscale your parcel delivery drone it can be a flying taxi.

    Hello, I'm Wolf Emonds Flight instructor and pilot examiner (USA). In the US, if you plan to operate any UAV for any commercial purpose you must do so under a 333 exemption from the FAA. Once that has been approved the "pilot" of the UAV must hold an airman certificate.
    Because my company has a specialized flight training system with in house pilot testing I've been getting quite a few calls for this type of accelerated program.

    Do you know when you are covered? Obviously if you are flying illegally ( over backyards, beaches ) you are not covered. So you are probably limited to the flight area of the club. I suppose those clubs are more into aircraft model flying, and fly in circles. So a drone flyer has not much space there. Other countries are more up to date. Switzerland for instance you can have personal liability insurance without a club, and you just have to be more then 100m from crowds.
    Reality is that most of the people will buy cheapish drones, and if they crash then out of sight, and they are not capable of assessing if they did damage, they simply write them off.

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