How to start your first drone business - the top 10 practical tips

23 min read Dec 13th 2023

Table of contents

  1. The basics
  2. Training
  3. Drone business types
  4. Day rates
  5. Practical considerations
  6. Bonus content
  7. Conclusion

Tip #1: There is no such thing as a drone business

A drone is a tool, much like a ground camera for wedding photography, a total station for land surveying or any other piece of equiment designed to capture data. A drone is not a business in and of itself.

That said, for ease of reference, we'll use the term 'drone business' throughout this post to mean any business that uses drones as a tool.

1 The basics

The basic principles of starting a drone business are much like any other. To succeed it's more important to understand the mechanics of a good business than to understand drones themselves.

Here are the basic things you need to consider when starting a business:

  1. Business planning: Create a comprehensive business plan that outlines your business idea, target market, financial projections, marketing strategy, and operational plan. This will help you stay on track and make informed decisions as your business grows.

  2. Business structure: Choose the right legal structure for your business, such as a sole trader/proprietorship, partnership, limited liability partnership (LLP), or limited company. The structure you choose will affect your personal liability, taxation, and administrative requirements.

  3. Registration and licenses: Register your business with Companies House if you are forming a limited company. You may also need to obtain other licenses and permits depending on your industry and location.

  4. Taxation: Understand your tax obligations and register for any relevant taxes, such as income tax, corporation tax, and VAT. Consult with a tax advisor to ensure you comply with all tax regulations.

  5. Funding: Determine your funding needs and explore different financing options, such as personal savings, loans, grants, or crowdfunding. Carefully consider the terms and conditions of each financing option.

  6. Marketing and sales: Develop a marketing strategy to reach your target market and generate sales. This may include online marketing, social media marketing, public relations, and traditional advertising.

  7. Operations and management: Establish efficient operational procedures and management systems to run your business effectively. This includes managing finances, inventory, customer relationships, and employee management. Invest in the right software to make this as simple and efficient as possible - don't get bogged down in t he admin!

  8. Compliance and regulations: Adhere to all applicable laws, regulations, and industry standards. This may involve health and safety regulations, employment laws, data protection requirements, and environmental standards.

  9. Risk management: Identify and assess potential risks to your business, such as financial risks, operational risks, and legal risks. Develop strategies to mitigate these risks and protect your business.

  10. Continuous improvement: Continuously assess and improve your business operations, marketing strategies, and customer service. This will help you stay competitive and adapt to changing market conditions.

So now you have the basics of your business set up, let's look at the different "drone businesses" and an overview of the market potential.

Tip #2: Don't try and do everything yourself. If something requires expertise, hire an expert, it will be money well spent

Training

Operating drones can be a complex and challenging task, which is why it's crucial to obtain the necessary training before embarking on a career in drone operations. Through comprehensive training, you can arm yourself with the fundamental skills and knowledge required to safely operate drones in various environments and applications. Here are some key reasons why proper training is essential:

  • Safety: Drones can pose safety risks if not operated responsibly. Proper training equips you with the necessary knowledge and skills to navigate airspace regulations, avoid collisions, and minimize the risk of accidents.

  • Legal compliance: Operating drones legally means you need to adhere to aviation regulations and airspace mandates. Training programs provide in-depth knowledge of drone laws, licensing requirements, and safety protocols, ensuring compliance with regulations and minimizing legal issues.

  • Technical expertise: Drones are sophisticated devices that require a deep understanding of their technical aspects. Training programs impart extensive knowledge of drone components, functionality, maintenance, and troubleshooting techniques, enabling you to effectively operate and maintain drones.

  • Application-specific skills: The drone industry encompasses various applications, each with unique operational requirements. Training programs offer specialised courses for specific industries, such as agriculture, infrastructure inspection, or search and rescue, equipping you with the skills to operate drones effectively in those domains.

  • Industry recognition: Obtaining relevant certifications and completing training programs can enhance your professional credibility and increase your chances of securing employment opportunities in reputable companies or landing contracts from discerning clients.

  • Continuous professional development (CPD): The drone industry is rapidly evolving, and you need to stay updated on the latest technologies, regulations, and operational techniques. Training programs foster a culture of continuous learning, enabling you to adapt to advancements and maintain your expertise.

Drone business types

Aerial photography

A typical drone photographer may take photos of property, land, commercial buildings, businesses, and weddings. It's a rather limited field and most quickly realise the need to add services to their offering to make their business viable. For example, if you're offering property marketing photography, you're probably going to have to offer internal and ground shots as well as aerial imagery.

Typical day rate: £300-£700

Typical equipment investment: £400-£2,000

Aerial videography

A meatier vertical, there is plenty of demand for drone filming, especially if you specialise in heavy-lift drones or FPVs. This demand comes from a variety of places, from small businesses looking for promotional videos to TV and film productions.

An exciting, but cut-throat and competitive world to be in, there's money to be made for those who can deliver the goods in terms of creative and technical prowess. Regardless of your skill level, you will need to network effectively and build lasting relationships with clients.

Typical day rate: £300-£1000

Typical equipment investment: £400-£20,000

Drone roof inspection

Many people make a good living inspecting roofs with their drones. The barrier to entry is low, with most roof inspections carried out with a sub 250g drone costing less than £1,000. The sub 250g drone means there's no requirement for a drone qualifications beyond the basic Operator ID, and only the small cost of commercial insurance to contend with, making competitive pricing a must. Don't let that put you off though, there's still money to be made in large jobs and ongoing contracts. Many creative drone operators maintain a drone roof inspection arm in their business, keeping a constant trickle of revenue coming in.

Typical day rate: £300-£600

Typical equipment investment: £500-£2,000

Tip #3 - be clear about what you're offering; a roof survey is very differnt to a roof inspection and client expectations in terms of data and reporting will be different

Drone infrastructure inspection

Normally the preserve of more established drone companies, or swept up by people transitioning from the infrastructure industry. The potential for ongoing revenue is excellent, but to achieve a contract in this industry you need to prove your skills, knowledge, and experience. Your business development, negotiating skills, contract writing and appraisal, and management skills will need to be on point to land one of these lucrative contracts.

Typical day rate: £500-£1,500

Typical equipment investment: £2,500-£20,000

Drone thermal inspection

Drones with thermal sensors are used to inspect solar panels, buildings, and power lines. They gauge thermal efficiency and the output is used to help identify damage, leaks, and heat loss. To competently operate a thermal drone and interpret the findings the operator needs a good level of training and experience.

The pay rates reflect increased equipment investment and skill levels. The real business is done at higher levels so you need serious business skills if you are to succeed. This is also a very niche industry, so you'll be casting your net over a smaller market segment.

Typical day rate: £600-£1,000

Typical equipment investment: £2,500-£10,000

Drone mapping and drone surveying

Perhaps the largest growing sector within the drone industry, and one where you have the potential to specialise and charge higher rates for your expertise. You can successfully carry out drone mapping with an old DJI Phantom 4 Pro, which will set you back around £500 second-hand. To be taken seriously you may need to invest more.

Although you don't need to be a surveyor to provide drone mapping services, you need to understand photogrammetry and how that relates to land surveying and be able to apply that knowledge in the practical collection and processing of data.

Typical day rate: £600-£1,000

Typical equipment investment: £2,500-£20,000

Drone cleaning

This is an exciting time for the drone industry, as more applications are coming to light. One such application is cleaning with tethered drones. As with many drone applications, this offers increased efficiency and safety versus the alternative. The outlay for a cleaning drone is significant and there are regulatory hurdles to overcome in the UK before a large drone is allowed to spray cleaning products and high-pressure jets. The potential market is huge, but it's currently largely untested.

Typical day rate: ?

Typical equipment investment: £15,000+

Tip #4 - for specialist work like this you are likely to need additional approvals from your country's aviation authority so there will be additional costs and extended approval processes to factor in

Drone agriculture

The highly specialised piece of kit needed to spread seed and liquids with drones will set you back upwards of £10k and, although it has some versatility within the agriculture and horticulture world you need to be certain of your approach before you invest. The industry is as yet largely untested in the UK but early signs are positive.

Typical day rate: ?

Typical equipment investment: £20,000+

A quick note on the typical day rate for drone work

There are around 250 working days in a year, minus holidays. You then need to factor in the weather. In the UK, for example, you're lucky to get around 150 'flying days' per year. Most drone operators cannot take advantage of every single flying day, and only those who are very adept at business development will be busy enough to fill all their available days with work.

If you're aiming for an average day rate of £500 and assume you will work 140 days per year, once you become established, you get to a figure of around £70k annual turnover. You then need to deduct business costs from this figure.

These example figures are for a 'one-man-band' outfit but if you're just starting in the drone industry, you can and should be aiming to scale beyond that.

Tip #5 - use our day rate calculator to help you with these calculations

Practical considerations

Now you know the typical verticals within the drone industry it's time for some practical tips on how to start your first business and set yourself up for success.

As with any service-based business, there are some basics that you need to get right first;

Website

Your website needs to be clean and professional. You will not get any visitors to your site for a long while unless you proactively promote it. Here are five top tips to get visitors to your new website:

Tip #6 - You can use a website builder like Webflow to build a site for free (or low monthly cost) quickly and without coding skills

  1. Optimize your website for search engines (SEO). This involves using relevant keywords in your website's content, headings, and meta descriptions to make it easier for search engines to find and index your website. You should also build backlinks to your website from other high-quality websites to improve its authority and ranking.

  2. Create high-quality content that is relevant to your target audience. This will encourage people to visit your website and spend more time interacting with your content. Make sure your content is informative, engaging, and up-to-date.

  3. Promote your website through social media, email marketing, and other online channels. Let people know that your website exists and what it has to offer. Share your content on social media, create email newsletters with links to your website, and participate in relevant online communities where your target customers hang out.

  4. Build backlinks to your website from other high-quality websites. Backlinks are links from other websites to your website. They can help to improve your website's authority and ranking in search engines. Reach out to other websites that are related to your niche and ask them to link to your website.

  5. Monitor your website's traffic and analytics to see what's working and what's not. Use Google Search Console to track your website's traffic and see where your visitors are coming from, what pages they are visiting, and how long they are staying. This information can help you to improve your website's SEO and content to attract more visitors.

Social proof is an essential element of your website - when do you ever buy a product or service without checking the reviews first? Getting reviews is really hard though; people generally have better things to do than sit down and think about what to write about your buainess. Make it easy for them by being friendly, responsive, engaging and doing a great job on time and to budget! You have to be persistent but not too pushy in encouraging your clients to leave a review. Here's a few tips on building social proof.

Reviews

Positive reviews solidify your capabilities in buyers' minds, removing potential objections to booking. Focus on getting as many reviews as possible but don't spread your reviews too widely across different platforms, as quantity is sometimes just as important as quality.

Google

Google is currently the best place to collect reviews for your company so it's important that you set up your business profile on Google as a first step. You can share a link to your business with prospective clients to encourage them to leave a review. Don't be tempted into buying fake reviews; they will only damage your business reputation in the long run - spend the money on maybe doing a few discounted jobs for clients in return for a review.

Tip #7 - to get a link for your customers to go straight to enter a review on Goolge, follow these steps:

  1. Log into your Google Business Profile.
  2. Look for your business on Google Search and click the link that states the number of reviews you have.
  3. Now select the “Get more reviews” button.
  4. There’s your Google reviews link! Copy and paste into an SMS or share it via email, WhatsApp or Facebook.

Trustpilot

Another review option is Trustpilot. You can set up a free acount and get your profile set up ready to collect reviews. Be careful though; Trustpilot's review score calculations can be harsh if you only have a few reviews - a single less-than-5-star review can dramatically reduce your overall score.

To get a link for your customers to go straight to enter a review on Trustpilot, just use the following link format: trustpilot.com/review/{your_trustpilot_account_id}, e.g. https://trustpilot.com/reviews/dronedesk.io.

Follow up

When you've completed your contract, drop a line to the client straight up asking them to leave a review if they were happy or arrange a follow-up call if they were not. Include links direct to the review entry page. Here's an example you can use:

Hi [Customer Name],

It was a pleasure to work with you recently on [project/job].

I'm reaching out to ask for your feedback. If you were happy with your experience, I'd love for you to take a few minutes to leave us a review on [link to Google, Trustpilot, etc.]. Your feedback will help us make our services even better for future customers.

Alternatively, if you weren't happy with your experience, please reply to this email or give me a call at [phone number] so we can discuss where we went wrong and put things right.

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Kind regards, [Your Name]

Ask for feedback and embrace it

Feedback is the secret sauce of improving your business. Negative feedback is the secret hot sauce of improving your business.

It's wonderful to get positive feedback but, in all honesty, all that is doing is massaging your ego - and who doesn't love that!? However, what you really need to hear is how you can improve things what you could have done better, faster, cheaper, slicker, neater, or whateverer.

Implementing improvements based on those nuggets of insights from your honest clients will help you address shortfalls and eleveate your offering above the competition.

Testimonials

Testimonials are short statements from satisfied customers that highlight the benefits of a product or service. They are typically written in the third person and focus on the customer's experience. Testimonials are often seen as more credible than basic reviews because they are from real people who have used the product or service.

Case studies

Case studies are more in-depth than testimonials and provide a more detailed account of how your product or service has been used to solve a problem or achieve a specific goal. They typically include information about the customer's needs, the challenges they faced, and how the product or service helped them to achieve their goals. Case studies are seen as more persuasive than testimonials because they provide concrete evidence of the product or service's effectiveness.

Building case studies that identify the benefits of your service can help sell what you do as a business. People respond to stories and that's the aim of a case study. It allows potential clients to put themselves in the shoes of the organisation or individual you helped, and to gain an understanding of how they might help you. It's also a way of explaining how you work with others, solve problems, and provide exemplary customer service.

Networking

Every man and his dog will advise networking when building a business, but what does that actually mean? It's embedding yourself into the industry, being in places where other like-minded businesses and potential clients might be, talking to people (not always selling to them), and collaborating with others. Posting on LinkedIn, commenting on other's posts, and much more. Talk to people, listen to people, attend relevant events and magic can happen.

Love it or hate it, LinkedIn is an essential networking tool. Here are a few tips on how to leverage the power of LinkedIn:

  1. Network - To build a strong network on LinkedIn, focus on connecting with relevant people in your target industry. Make sure they are active users with between 1k and 10k connections. Send out 150 connection requests per week, and use LinkedIn search, posts, groups, events, and introductions to find new connections. Regularly clean up your network by removing old and irrelevant connections. Tools like LeadDelta can help you with this.

  2. Engage - To grow your following on LinkedIn, identify 50-100 influential profiles in your industry, follow them, turn on notifications, and comment on their posts regularly. Provide valuable insights, engage with other commenters, and reuse your best comments for personal posts. Start conversations with new connections, leverage introductions and help from your connections, label your connections, pin the most important conversations to the top of your inbox, send your contacts content they are interested in, engage them privately through a conversation about their latest posts, offer them help, and respond to your messages in 48 hours based on priorities.

  3. Share - To increase visibility and engagement on LinkedIn, post at least 5 times per week at the same time each day. Encourage audience engagement by responding to comments and supporting other creators. Additionally, comment on other posts before posting your own to increase visibility.

Tip #8 - a tip on connection requests; don't go in all guns blazing. If you pile in with a sales pitch as part of your connection request, trust me, you will not get many connections. Get the connection first and then start the conversation. Here's a couple of example requests that I've found effective:

[target name], liked your comment on [post/group/discussion]. I'm interested in this topic too. Let's connect. – [your name] [your title]

[target name], I enjoy your posts. I'd love to connect – [your name] [your title]

Once you're connected and exchanged, then follow up with a tentative introduction to the pain points you can solve for them:

[target name], could you help? I’m looking for the person who makes decisions about [pain points] at your company. Could you refer me to the right person and let me how to get in touch with them? Thanks in advance! [your name] [your title]

Work for free

Many will advise against this, but we take the contrarian view that what you can gain will often outweigh what you put in. When you start your business, it's hard to build up a bank of content, experience, case studies, and skills, so it might be necessary to work for a reduced rate, or even free. As long as you take a targeted approach and get more out of it than you put in, it could be a winner.

If you do go down this road, make sure you set expectations with the client in terms of quid pro quo, i.e. "I will do this element of the job for free in return for a [testimonial/case study] of at least 500 words. Any work over-and-above this will be chargeable at £X/day.

Relationship building

Relationship building is good customer service. Focus on good communication, clear objectives and deliverables, transparent pricing, and a friendly approach and you should find clients coming back again and again. Always deliver on time and on budget. If that means being conservative with your timeframes and liberal with your quote (within reason) then that is fine; you are in a strong position if the client wants to negotiate.

Technical and creative acumen

All this background business stuff is no good if you're mediocre at performing whatever task it is you're selling. If you're focusing on the technical side of drone services, you better know your DSM from your DTM, or your Lidar from your thermal camera.

Creative drone service providers need to understand camera settings, composition, light, and have confident, smooth control of a drone to succeed.

All this takes practice, patience, and continuous professional development. Remember, this is a fast-moving industry, so make sure you stay abreast of any changes and embrace them rather than resisting.

Social savvy

Some would have you think that a focus on social media is a must in modern business but in reality, it's a conscious decision every business owner needs to make.

Whatever you do, ensure you're going into social media with both eyes open and a defined plan. Do you think time spent on social media will give you a positive return on investment versus time spent elsewhere, if so which social channels will you focus on appealing to your target audience? How long will you spend each day/week/month on social media and how do you want to present your business across the various channels? You will need to answer these questions and more before diving in.

Use your time on social media wisely. Join groups which your target customers hang out in. Engage without being 'salesy'. Comment regularly with helpful advice and observations but nothing too controvertial or opinionated.

Business plan

As a startup drone business you might not think a business plan is necessary, at least in the initial stages. It is a good idea however to jot down any thoughts and feelings about your business that might pertain to a business plan and arrange them into a coherent document.

You can then look over your document and identify gaps, places for further research, opportunities, and missing information. You should aim to stick to your business plan, no matter how brief to at least prove/disprove a concept before moving on.

When things get real and you want to move to the next level, a business plan becomes a vital instrument in sailing your drone-shaped ship in the right direction.

Business development

The key to business development is having a defined plan and being persistent with it. Many start-up business owners ping-pong around different business opportunities in their industry in an attempt to gain traction and solidify their standing. Having defined targets and objectives and sticking to them is a much better approach.

Decide who you are going to target, and how you will do it, and persist until you are sure you either need to change your approach, change your target sector, or you succeed.

Tip #9 - my top tip for success having spoken to hundreds of drone operators over the past five years is to niche down and become and expert in your field

Business admin

Don't ignore business admin. Things like poorly maintained accounts can catch up with you quickly so make sure you are ticking those boxes, sending those letters, renewing your insurance, and keeping an eye on cash flow. Subscribe to the right software tools and services to make your life as easy as possible. Here's what I use:

  • Accounting - you need to get this right, so in my view it's money well spent to employ an expert to take care of it for you. Try Fresh Accountancy for an all-inclusive, fixed-price accounting service.

  • Social Media Management - it's hard work keeping on top of posting regularly so it might make sense to use a service like Publer which enables you to automate scheduling and posting - you can even connect RSS feeds for fully automated posting of news in your industry.

  • Appointments - making it easy for your prospects to schedule a call with you is crucial. Calendly is a brilliant tool for this. There's a free tier too!

  • Drone Operations Management - keeping your drone operations compliant and safe is a critical part of demonstrating that you're a responsible and professional business. Dronedesk makes every aspect of this really simple; record all your assets and log maintenance, record your team members and track qualifications, manage your flight planning with customisable risk assessments, checklists, site plans, NOTAMs, weather and much more all taken care of. There's even a CRAM module and you can create quotes and invoices too.

Tip #9 - a left-field option for getting access cheap software is to use a portal like AppSumo. They showcase new software available for a low one-time payment

Advertising

Some very lucky people have built successful businesses purely by word of mouth, but the rest of us need to grapple with advertising as one of our sources of leads and business. Programmatic advertising is perhaps the most likely source for drone business, through Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. If you plan to advertise and you have little or no budget, you may need to skill up on creating and managing these ad campaigns yourself.

Tip #10 - be warned, getting advertising right is not simple and can get very expensive very quickly. I would recommend this is a last resort option

Bonus content - customer personas

In today's competitive business landscape, understanding your target audience is crucial for effective marketing and business growth.

Customer personas, also known as buyer personas, are fictional representations of your ideal customers, capturing their demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics. By developing customer personas, you gain a deeper understanding of your customers' needs, motivations, and pain points.

This knowledge enables you to tailor your marketing strategies, service or product offering, and customer service to resonate with their specific preferences and expectations. Here are a couple of reasons why creating customer personas is essential for your business:

  1. Targeted Marketing and Sales Efforts: Customer personas provide a clear picture of your ideal customer, allowing you to focus your marketing efforts on attracting and engaging the right audience. By understanding your customers' demographics, interests, and online behavior, you can tailor your messaging, content, and marketing channels to reach them effectively. This targeted approach leads to more efficient resource allocation, increased conversion rates, and improved customer satisfaction.

  2. Enhanced Product Development and Customer Experience: Customer personas serve as a valuable guide for product development and customer experience enhancement. By understanding your customers' needs, challenges, and aspirations, you can identify opportunities to develop products and services that address their specific pain points and deliver solutions that align with their expectations. This customer-centric approach fosters a positive brand perception and drives customer loyalty.

We've built an AI customer persona generator to help you generate customer personas in under a minute!

Conclusion

Drones are rapidly transforming the world, with applications ranging from aerial photography and filmmaking to delivery and infrastructure inspection. As the technology continues to develop, so does the potential for new and innovative uses. If you're considering getting into the drone industry, now is a great time to do it.

The drone market is growing incredibly quickly. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the number of registered drones in the United States is expected to reach 1 million by 2024. This growth is being driven by a number of factors, including the increasing affordability of drones, the development of new and innovative applications, and the growing demand for drone-based services.

The drone industry is becoming increasingly regulated. This is a good thing for professionals in the industry, as it will help to ensure that drones are used safely and responsibly. As the regulations become more clear, businesses will have more confidence in investing in the technology and clients will be more discerning about the drone operators they work with, driving out the fly-by-nights and cowboy operators.

If you're willing to put in the hard work and dedication, there is a lot of potential to make a really good living in the drone industry. I wish you every success!

👋 Thanks for reading our blog post. Sorry to interrupt but while you're here...

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