Are drones just a hobby, or could they be an investment in your future?

Paul Aitken, author of Livin’ the Drone Lifebelieves anyone can make a living flying drones, and he has thousands of students-turned-drone-professionals to back up his claims.

So, how exactly can you make money flying from the safety of the ground? By Paul’s count, there are over 1,000 different applications for commercial drones today, and that number increases every year.

By the end of this episode, you’ll have the insider’s playbook to flying drones for fun and for profit.

Listen in to Paul Aitken to learn: 

  • The equipment you need (and don’t need) to start your drone business today
  • What laws you need to know about as a commercial drone pilot in the USA
  • Why real estate is the fastest way to financial freedom for aspiring drone pilots

Get Livin’ the Drone Life on Amazon.

Find out more at TheDroneU.com. 

How did Paul Aitken become interested in drones?

The reason I got into drones was actually quite simple.

I had been seeing a lot of areal pictures crop up and I was looking for a way to showcase the physical location of the company I worked for back in 2012.

I worked for a security firm in Albuquerque and they were really focused on showing the proximity of their location to the city center because one of the biggest problems in Albuquerque is crime.

The police force here has an abominable response time, it’s something like 17 minutes, so the security firm I worked for wanted a visual way to show how fast they could respond to calls. And that’s where aerial photography came in.

A drone pilot readies his drone for flight.

I talked to the owner of the company who later became a partner in Drone U, and he offered to send me to drone school to learn everything I would need to to take the photos for him. In return, I’d get him his aerial imagery for free.

So, I ended up at a full-blown university in Arizona studying unmanned aerial systems engineering (UAS) from an old Predator drone pilot. I didn’t realize it then, but it was the furthest thing from what I would actually be doing as a drone pilot taking aerial images.

Anyway, the first day of school I’m outside and I’m thinking, “We just sat in class for eight hours, I want to fly, this is what this is all about.” So I pull out my drone and attempt one of the challenges where we have to find a person on the top of the school building.

Well, I found him in 30 seconds and the owner of the school comes over and says, “You have a natural talent at flying, I want you to train for me.”

I trained for him for a year and a half and then flew for the National Association of Broadcasters where I taught people from CNN, Fox News, BBC, and ITN.

Finally, I went back to Albuquerque and shot photos for the security firm guy. After he saw me flying he said, “Paul, you don’t fly like any other person I’ve ever seen, I’ve seen a lot of people fly drones and they fly in linear movements, they fly in straight lines. Every time I see you fly, you’re in some organic natural motion. The drone never actually sits in one place, you’re always telling a story.”

That’s when I realized that while there are a lot of good drone schools out there, all of them are very focused on the technical information but they’ve got no one to show other people how to fly.

So I continued to teach people how to fly for five years and with all of that experience I decided to write a practical training manual for anyone who wants to get into flying.

I love to fly. I want to teach other people how to fly so that they can enjoy flight more, they can lower their learning curve.

When did you decide it was time to write a book?

I always thought that books brought credibility but in all honesty, it was my business partner who brought it up when he said, “You know, I think a book is going to give you and this company what we need.”

I already had tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and Facebook but we really needed older people to look at this in a more traditional way to bring about more credibility and authority to my current business, Drone U.

I never thought I would write book but then when I started doing more and more research about the behavioral psychology and behavioral economics behind the whole thing, I was like, “Wow, this is a really good idea” Then I listened to Tucker Max on the Mike Dillard podcast and I learnt about Book in a Box, the company that helped me write and publish my book, and the rest is history.

Why should anyone read your book, Livin’ the Drone Life?

Well, if you love to fly, if you’ve ever taken a passion to the skies, or if you just love the feeling of being up in the air, even if it’s just a passenger jet and you want to experience more of that. Maybe you want to dive deep into the emotional powerhouse of unabridged curiosity and unabridged exploration and adventure, via flight. Then I can show you how to do that in a way that doesn’t endanger your life.

My book not only teaches you how to fly, but how to fly while limiting liability, limiting risk, and going from employee to an employer by turning your passion for flight into profit.

If you love to fly or if you’ve ever even thought about flying and you want to take to the skies, make sure you don’t take to the skies and crash, take to the skies and take flight.

What legal issues do aspiring drone pilots need to know about?

Up until 2016, there really wasn’t any law that covered drones specifically. In 2007 the FAA created a legal definition for a drone, but it was based on the 128-foot wingspan killing machines the military uses, not a 350-millimeter sized quadcopter.

So people flying drones commercially were in a bit of a legal grey area. The FAA would occasionally go after someone flying commercially because they didn’t have a license. Well, that was struck down by the NTSB who said, currently, the FAA doesn’t have any authority.

That all changed in 2016 when the FAA came out with Part 107 and a whole new definition of drones, which effectively lays out all the can and can’t dos for drone pilots.

For instance, you can fly in any airspace commercially except for controlled airspace, which you need to get authorization for. You can fly up to 400 feet, you can’t fly over 100 mph, and you can absolutely never fly directly over people.

If you’re using a drone to advance your business, you’re a commercial drone operator and if you don’t have a license, you can be fined $1,100 every single time you put a battery in that drone.

Actually, right now is a very interesting time for the drone community.

There’s a guy named Casey Neistat on YouTube and he has a huge following from the daily vlogs he puts out. Over the last while he’s slowly got into drones. But the guy flies in restricted airspace and breaks just about every rule you could ever think of. He’s flying over people, flying in New York City, the most restricted and controlled airspace in the world, and he’s doing it like it’s no big deal.

Well, recently he announced on his YouTube channel that he’s being investigated by the FAA. So everyone in the drone community was like, “Finally, this guy is going to get slapped on the wrist.”

We didn’t really want to see him wind up in serious trouble, we just want to say, “Look, this isn’t okay. What about all these 30,000 drone pilots that have done the right thing, followed the rules, and got the licensed to fly?” Effectively, we don’t want him to give all drone pilots a bad reputation because it’s hard enough as it is to get airspace authorizations from regulators as a drone pilot.

You know, people all over the country are trying to do this legitimately and Casey Neistat’s out there doing it because he feels like it.

Anyway, the FAA finally came back and said it wasn’t conclusive that he was flying in restricted airspace.

Hundreds of millions of people would disagree, but he’s got seven million followers or something on YouTube, so now I tell commercial drone pilots that unless they hit someone, they’re not going to get in trouble for flying over anyone. Of course, you’ll still have to get your Part 107 drone certification and follow the rules listed under Part 107.

Just use common sense. Don’t do anything that would get the attention of local media for the wrong reasons.

I’m probably not helping book sales, but I want people to know that I’m about honesty and integrity. I love to fly and whatever happens with upcoming Senate bills and Congressional bills, if I can help educate more people on how to fly safely, ultimately, we’re going to skies for everyone.

What are some unusual uses for drones?

There are endless jobs that you can do with a drone. In fact, every single day it seems there are new uses for drones. When I first started Drone U, we isolated 300 separate businesses that would use drones to solve problems. Right now, we’ve counted well over a thousand.

Let me give you a couple of really weird examples that most people wouldn’t think of.

First, let’s say I want to find a specific object but I have no idea where it is. I’m looking for a needle in a haystack. Well, what if I knew what the needle was made of? Let’s say it’s tin. I can then go to a chart and look up the absorbance and reflectivity of light for tin.

Then, I can set my hyperspectral camera to look for nothing but that set of reflectivity and absorbency values. Essentially, I’m looking at a black screen and the only object that comes up as while is going to be that needle because it’s tin. Effectively, the haystack doesn’t even exist anymore.

So that’s one really powerful use for drones, finding objects that people would otherwise assume are lost.

Next, people value convenience more and more, and the drone is the perfect delivery vehicle for any number of products.

Imagine sitting on a beach on vacation and thinking, “Man this trip would be just perfect if I had a Coca-Cola right now,” then all of a sudden you see a hexacopter fly overhead and drop a Coca-Cola next to you. It will happen.

Amazon is really pushing to be able to utilize the skies for delivery and fulfillment, but the way that the law is written right now, no drone pilot and no drone can carry anything for hire.

The Trump Administration has said that they are pro-drones, but actions speak louder than words. So we’ll have to wait and see what actually happens.

How can anyone start a business with a drone?

If you have $2,000 in your pocket then you can start a drone business. There are a couple of things you can do right away.

Number one, you could fly real estate all day long. That’s one thing that I’ve done and it can be done cheaply.

An aerial image of sea-side houses.

Once you have a specific skill or niche you’ll need to figure out who your target client is because there are four types of clients: low maintenance low-profit, high-maintenance high-profit, high-maintenance low-profit, and low-maintenance high-profit.

Obviously, you want to go for the last category of client because these are the people that pay you a premium because they see the value in what you do.

So you can go from entry-level real estate to luxury real estate quite quickly. You can fly golf courses really quickly. You can do live streaming at events. There are a lot of different niches in the drone industry.

What I found in my experience is that the best way to raise your rates without getting pushback from clients is to offer packages.

So going back to the real estate example, not only are you taking aerial photos and video of the house and property but you’re also doing the interior and exterior photos. Then you can fly right into the house to give people a nice stabilized look into the house. It’s essentially a virtual tour.

If you’re taking shots of golf courses, maybe you can also offer marketing services to complement that footage. You just have to be creative.

What are some other things that people can do with drones?

With drones we can also map things, so instead of using surveyors to map areas, we can use drones to take thousands of pictures and stitch them together to create three-dimensional models that we can measure distances off of.

Right now I’m competing for a bid with MLB to map stadiums so that they can measure points and distances inside of the stadium. This will allow them to measure the margin of error associated with the radar guns they use to measure the speed of the ball.

Once you scratch the surface you start to see that you can really deep dive here with the number of things you can do with a drone.

I could literally give you thousands of uses for drones.

For example, electronics heat up before they fail. So if I fly a thermal camera around a wind farm, I can figure out which windmill or which turbine has a higher propensity to fail over the other ones based on its heat signature.

Let’s take it even further. Let’s say I want to buy a house, but first I want to know if the house is sturdy and structurally sound as the realtor says it is. Well, I can fly a drone with a thermal camera around the house at a certain time of day with a certain temperature deviation and I can actually see cracks in the foundation, mold in the corners, water leaks, roof leaks, and significant structural damage all from the sky.

Like I said every single day there is a new use for drones.

Here’s one more that will really blow your mind. Cancer is a big problem in this country.

Well, there is now a new camera that was developed in Albuquerque which can actually see through your skin and tell you if you have growing cancer cells. So we’re talking about life-altering technology here.

Imagine that instead of walking into the hospital through those two sets of double doors, you walk through an arch and in that arch there are multiple mid-infrared cameras and that can immediately notify the nurse if you have cancer or not, if you’re on drugs or not, and what your heart rate is. The future is now.

The uses, the problems that can be solved by drones, are endless. It’s all up to the creativity of the operator.

Can you tell us about some of the ways your book has impacted your readers?

I’ve gotten a couple of emails that have brought me to tears because they were from people who were literary on their last limb in life and working a job they hated until they slowly got into drones. Most of them have gone the real estate route and really found a job that they love doing every day. But there’s this one reader who really stands out to me.

His name is Chris Gannon and he lives in Tennessee and he was one of the first Drone U members. Anyway, he read the book, went through everything, and then called me one day to say, “You know Paul, I’m really trying to figure out when to quit my job and start full-time with my drone business.”

His business was growing fast, but he didn’t know what to do. He was a bit overwhelmed with all the work he was taking on. He was editing photos, editing videos, planning shoots, and he just wasn’t sure when he should go full-time and start delegating some of that stuff. So I told him, “There is no right time. It doesn’t exist.”

And that’s the truth. There is no right time to launch your business.

You could have 18 months of revenue built up before you start your business and you could still have a catastrophic event and lose everything.

You really have to play every card right. And that’s what Chris did, so now he has a successful drone business.

What equipment do I need to start my own drone business?

For someone just starting out, I only recommend one drone: the Syma X5C. It’s the cheapest of cheap drones and a total piece of garbage, but you know what? For your first drone, that’s what you need.

Why?

Because you can crash into a wall a hundred times and it’s not going to break. You crash a DJI Phantom, Spark, Mavic, or Inspire one time you’re going to lose the whole thing and you’re going to be out thousands of dollars.

The Syma X5C is $50 bucks and it has no hover control, it has no altitude control and it has no gyroscopes. It really tests you in your flying ability. You have to learn the intricacies of pitch, roll, and yaw.

Once you do that, you move up into a DJI Phantom. Fifty bucks for your first drone, a thousand for your second drone.

A DJI Phantom in flight.

But that first drone is going to teach you how to be a much better pilot than most people out there because most people learn to fly with all these extra internal systems that help them control the drone.

This little tiny X5C is not going to do that, it’s going to force you to learn the hard way, and in the drone world, that’s the only way anyone should learn.

Remember, so many things can go wrong and if you’re a commercial drone pilot and you lose control of your drone over a crowd of people, your business is over forever.

So buy a cheap drone, play around with it, and learn how to fly. Take on a few real-estate jobs for free and see if you can work with realtors, but keep your day job.

If you still wake up looking forward to flying every day, then keep going. Remember, it’s right at the point where you feel like giving up, right when you want to quit. It’s when you’ve been running your business for years and you still haven’t been able to quit your day job. That’s the point that will determine whether your business is successful or not.

Because most people quit and if you can stay the course, if you can stay steadfast and believe in yourself, then your business will succeed. I guarantee it.

Get Livin’ the Drone Life on Amazon.

Find out more at TheDroneU.com.

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