Florida companies, entrepreneurs and schools are all-in as commercial use of drones skyrockets.
In 2011, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach became one of the first in the U.S. to offer a bachelor’s degree in unmanned aircraft systems. “We knew there was going to be growth because autonomy is the wave of the future,” says John Robbins, the school’s unmanned aircraft systems program coordinator and an associate professor in aeronautical science. Students learn how to fly and program drones and about data collection and image analysis, he says. Embry-Riddle also offers a number of master’s degrees and specializations focused on drone operations and engineering. Robbins says students “come from all sorts of backgrounds” and typically start out doing contract work with the Department of Defense before landing jobs in the private sector. The drone industry “is good and showing consistent growth,” he says.
Becoming a commercial drone pilot isn’t expensive or difficult. The FAA’s commercial drone licensing program requires operators to pass a multiple-choice test and pay $150. As of July, there were more than 95,000 FAA-certified drone pilots in the U.S.
Experts say job opportunities for commercial drone pilots are growing. Pay can range up to $250 an hour or more, depending on the work, location and skill level required.
Having already spread beyond their military origins to recreational use, drones are now being put to work by businesses. That can involve risk that insurers are willing to cover.
Last year, Unmanned Vehicle Insurance launched an online portal where commercial drone operators can buy up to $5 million in liability insurance backed by Lloyds of London. The insurance covers damage to a policyholder’s drone and payload while in flight as well as damage to someone else’s property in the event of an accident. Annual premiums range from $510 for $1 million of insurance to $900 for $5 million of insurance.
“Drones can cost as little as $2,000, but their payloads” — especially cameras and video equipment — “are very expensive,” says Gary Reshefsky, president of Unmanned Vehicle Insurance, a Boca Raton-based division of Century Programs.
So far, UVI’s claims volume has been low, he says. While businesses today use drones largely for aerial photography and surveying, he anticipates more commercial drone applications to come.
“Fire departments are using drones to monitor brush fires and those types of things,” he says. “In agricultural areas, drone technology is becoming more affordable.”
Farmers already use drones to take inventory of crops and spot failing plants early. In the not-too-distant future, he says, drones will be used to spray pesticides, fertilizer and water on crops.
Drone training programs have proliferated in Florida since the FAA legalized commercial drone operations two years ago.
At St. Petersburg College, students can now take a four-week, 10-hour course to prepare for the FAA’s drone pilot test. So far, more than 250 students have taken the prep course, which costs $340. Fred Tucker, the college’s drone program coordinator, says most students are entrepreneurs looking to start a drone services business or professionals wanting to add drone-flying skills to their resume.
“We’ve had people come through who want to do this as a second or third career,” Tucker says. “We’ve had pilots who don’t fly aircraft anymore, but they still want to stick with aviation, so they’ve converted to being drone pilots. We’ve also had people who are incorporating it into their existing businesses.”
St. Petersburg College also offers a drone-related course on mapping technology and a course for police and fire departments that see a use for drones in their operations. This month, the college will add a course on editing and producing video shot with drone cameras.
Until fairly recently, most companies were not allowed by law to fly drones commercially in the U.S. That changed two years ago, when the Federal Aviation Administration issued rules clearing the way for drones to be used for business purposes. Companies can now fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds, within eyesight of an FAA-certified remote pilot, at a maximum altitude of 400 feet.