The Best Drone Business Ideas

Know the rules and regulations before you jump into a drone business

Image shows four people on a grassy hill doing various activities with drones. text reads:

Image by Ashley Nicole DeLeon © The Balance 2019

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are rapidly becoming indispensable tools in a variety of industries. 

Although the drone industry in the U.S. is somewhat limited by the Federal Aviation Administration's slow pace in updating regulations, commercial growth of that industry grew from about $40 million in 2012 to more than $1 billion in 2017. A December 2017 McKinsey & Co. study predicted the UAV market would "have an annual impact...on the country's gross domestic product" of up to $46 billion.

As with most other tech devices, competition in the marketplace continues to drive down drone prices and rapidly advance the technology. Affordable drones now exist that include features such as:

  • 4K cameras that can take high-resolution images and video
  • Built-in GPS and autopilot, enabling the drone to fly preprogrammed routes
  • Bluetooth capability
  • Collision avoidance
  • Terrain follow (the ability to maintain a consistent height while flying over uneven terrain)
  • Active tracking (automatically follow a selected subject)
  • The ability to fly at speeds of 50 mph (80 km/hr) or more

Safety features, reliability, control distance, and battery life also continue to improve.

If you are technically inclined and looking to start a new business or have an existing business that could benefit from new technology, consider taking advantage of one of the latest trends and become a drone expert. Offering drone services on a contract basis could also be an ideal part-time or home-based business.

Photography

Drone with high resolution digital camera flying over flower field with snow mountain in background in Switzerland. Beautiful landscape
Prasit photo / Getty Images

Prior to the development of drones, taking photographs or video from the air required the (very expensive) rental of fixed-wing or helicopter aircraft. 

With the advent of low-cost drones equipped with high-resolution cameras, taking aerial images is now easily affordable for photographers. Images and video taken from the air offer a perspective that cannot be matched from the ground, and drones can safely operate at much lower altitudes and in more confined spaces than aircraft.

Photographers and filmmakers now routinely use drones to take high-quality images and video from the air, such as of:

  • Landscapes
  • Sporting events
  • Real estate
  • Weddings and other special events
  • Wildlife
  • Film and TV subjects

Security Surveillance

Drone image of commercial area
Robert Loe / Getty Images

Home and commercial security is another area rife with opportunity for a drone business. A drone can capture live video footage of a home intrusion and transmit it to a smartphone, as well as notify the police if required.

Drones can also assist in detecting other threats to property such as fire and water leaks. Live video feeds from drones can be sent to a home or business owner's mobile device, to a central monitoring facility, or directly to emergency responders.

Search and Rescue

Ambulance Drone flying in the sky
Hiroshi Watanabe / Getty Images

Drones are becoming an indispensable tool in the arsenal of search-and-rescue organizations. Aside from the greatly reduced cost of using drones instead of helicopters for aerial searches, drones are able to fly at night and reach areas where helicopters are unable to travel. 

Equipping drones with infrared and/or night vision sensors allows search-and-rescue teams to detect missing individuals by heat emissions as well as visually, and drones can deliver emergency supplies as needed.

Becoming a search-and-rescue drone operator or selling, renting, or equipping search-and-rescue drones has the potential to be highly lucrative while doing good deeds at the same time.

Building Inspections: Roofs, Chimneys, Siding

Drone roof inspection
Juice Images / Getty Images

Roof inspection by hand can be an involved, costly, and hazardous process, particularly on multistory structures. With drone technology, however, building inspections can be done safely and inexpensively, making this a great drone business idea.

A drone can perform a close-up survey of the exterior of a building and deliver high-resolution video of the roof, gutters, chimneys, and building envelope, enabling a building owner to detect trouble spots in advance.

If you have a background in construction or building inspection, a drone inspection service could be an ideal business or an add-on to your existing inspection services.

Agricultural Surveys

Drone crop survey
Miguel Sotomayor / Getty Images

Drones are revolutionizing agriculture. The ability to survey crops from the air with an inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with a variety of sensors enables a farmer to collect an unprecedented amount of useful data, including information about:

  • Soil hydration
  • Variations in soil composition
  • Pest/fungal infestations

In addition, drone crop surveys can be taken weekly, daily, or even hourly as required. Accurate information allows for optimal crop irrigation, fertilization, and pest control. Reducing water and pesticide usage and maximizing crop yields benefits the bottom line and the environment.

Underwater Inspections

Remote Piloted Submersible
Ralph White / Getty Images

Drone technology is by no means limited to unmanned aerial vehicles. Submersible drones have been available for decades, but up until recently were only affordable by large businesses or research institutions. Now underwater drones are available for less than $1,000, can be remotely controlled using a laptop or smartphone, and submerge to depths of up to 100 meters.

Submersible drones can be equipped with lighting and take high-resolution underwater images or video at a fraction of the cost of contracting a professional diver. 

Aside from photography, underwater drones have numerous other commercial applications, including:

  • Environmental assessments
  • Search and recovery
  • Aquaculture
  • Underwater inspections (including tanks, piping, boat hulls, and propellers)
  • Marine research
  • Law enforcement

Mapping and Surveying

Surveyor with drone equipment on hillside
Hero Images / Getty Images

Land surveyors are increasingly turning to drones to acquire highly accurate digital survey data from the air in a fraction of the time (and expense) required by survey teams on the ground.

Using base station reference data and GPS, specially equipped drones can gather three-dimensional cartographic information with an accuracy of within 1 to 2 centimeters after processing. Cartographic surveys are used in many industries, including:

  • Archaeology
  • Construction
  • Flood and pollution monitoring
  • Forestry management
  • Mining and oil and gas
  • Urban planning​

If you are looking to start a business in land surveying or cartography, drone services could be an ideal way to get a jump on the competition.

Drone Sales, Repair, Training, and Customization

Repairing a drone's internal components
Kyrylo Glivin / EyeEm / Getty Images

Drones are fragile devices that are prone to failure and damage, particularly if misused. And even though prices have declined significantly, most drones are still too expensive to simply throw away. 

If you are an expert with drones and are mechanically inclined with a knowledge of electronics, drone sales, repair, and customization could be a lucrative business for you.

In addition, drones require knowledge and skills to operate them safely, creating a demand for experienced drone instructors. If you have the appropriate UAV skills, experience, and certifications, why not offer your services as a trainer?

Commercial, Industrial, and Insurance Inspections

Drone view of railroad terminus site
Paul Souders / Getty Images

As with roof and building inspections, drones are increasingly being used in other industries to perform inspections that are costly or hazardous for humans to perform. This includes large and difficult-to-access structures such as:

  • Bridges
  • Cell and TV towers
  • Pipelines
  • Power lines
  • Solar panels
  • Wind turbines

Drones can also be used to survey damaged areas for insurance claims.    

Drone Insurance

Drone Warning Sign
Richard Newstead / Getty Images

Whether operating a drone for hobby or commercial purposes, consider purchasing damage and liability insurance.

While greatly decreasing in cost in recent years, a drone is still an expensive piece of equipment and can be lost or damaged through equipment failure, accident, or misuse. Damage insurance can cover the cost of repair or replacement.

Drone usage also comes with potential liability issues. For example, if your drone runs out of battery power and crashes onto a vehicle or into a group of bystanders, you could be liable for property damage or injury. Make sure you investigate liability insurance if you intend to operate your drone in situations that could put people or property at risk.

Drone Operator Licenses

Drone operator making drone ready to take off for filming
Amir Mukhtar/Getty Images

As of November 2018, the guidelines for owning and operating a commercial drone (called Part 107 or the small UAS rule) are fairly straightforward.

First, you have to be at least 16 years old and pass a background check by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). You must be fluent in written and spoken English.

Next, you have to pass the FAA’s aeronautical knowledge test, which you’ll take at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center. Before taking the test, familiarize yourself with drone regulations and restrictions, including emergency procedures. 

Once you pass, the FAA will email you a temporary license. Your permanent license will arrive in the mail in a few weeks.

Remember that you can’t fly your commercial drone in certain places, and regulations govern its use. 

How to Get a Drone Business Started

a man launching a drone
Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

The more time spent on due diligence and advance preparation, the greater your odds of starting a successful business—and that applies to starting a drone business.

Do some preliminary market research: survey businesses and potential clients in your locale that might benefit from drone services. Find out if there are any competitors. Is the target market already saturated?

If it looks like there is a demand for drone services, write a business plan, even if you don't need debt financing for startup capital to get your business going. 

Drone Regulations

'No Drones' sign
David Madison / Getty Images

Checking the current regulations will be the first thing you want to do when you're thinking of starting a drone business.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) established a set of guidelines and regulations in August 2016 to allow the use of drones for commercial purposes without the need for the operator to hold a pilot's license.

Here are some of the key regulations for the use of drones for commercial purposes:

  • Drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds must be registered. Registration must be renewed every three years.
  • Before every flight, the drone must undergo a preflight inspection to ensure it is airworthy.
  • Drone operators must keep the drone in sight while flying.
  • Commercial drones can only fly in the daytime, but twilight flying is allowed if the drone has anti-collision lights (drones used in search-and-rescue and other official public safety operations are usually exempt from the night-flying rule).
  • Drones cannot fly higher than 400 feet or faster than 100 mph.