How Much Should I Spend on a Professional Drone?
One of the most common questions asked at DRONELIFE is “How much does it cost?” Operators just receiving their Part 107 – or those who have been in the business for a while and are ready for some new equipment – want to know what they should invest in a professional drone setup. The answer is: it depends – upon the type of work you do and the type of company you operate.
We surveyed professional operators in our network to see what they spend on their equipment. While total package prices range from $2,000 to $270,000, some key takeaways will help new commercial operators accurately estimate their investment.
#1. It’s all about the application. The right drone at the right price point depends entirely on who your customers are and your area of expertise. Even within applications, there is significant variation depending upon where you operate. Some operators specializing in photography or videography get great results with a prosumer quadcopter costing $2 -3,000; others working on professional film sets require a specialty aircraft that can cost over $25,000. Industrial applications and inspection work may also use different sensors like thermographic equipment attached to prosumer quads – but if you fly in difficult environmental conditions, or are doing work that requires a unique payload system like power-line stringing, you’ll need an industrial grade drone for the job. DroneDeploy, PrecisionHawk and other agricultural drone platforms work fine with a prosumer drone: some agricultural applications may require a fixed wing aircraft for longer-range and endurance.
Operators should consider what features they actually require before investing: ease of use, wind or rain resistance, flight endurance, payload weight and availability and other factors all come into play. An academic flying for research in environmental monitoring and mapping estimates that her setup including hyperspectral, thermal, and DSLR cameras on an industrial drone decked out with enterprise features cost over $200k – but she also uses a hyperspectral or thermal attachment on a 3DR Solo, bringing the cost under $10k. This guide from Embry-Riddle, reviewing drones for factors like performance and cost-effectiveness, may provide some insight on prosumer drones.
#2. The drone isn’t the only cost. Operators can try to estimate their costs by working backwards from the drone they’ve decided is best for their application -see our articles on drones for agriculture and inspection to get ideas – but the drone itself is only a piece of the total investment. Professional operator Jessica Vanné of Monaco says that the cost depends not only on which drone they choose for the job – they always show up with at least two of their prosumer drones, to avoid equipment failure in front of the customer – but also on which payload is required. While the company usually uses an Inspire Pro or Raw drone, their payload kit includes thermal, zoom, a dropping system, and others: putting the total equipment costs in a widely varying range between $8,000 and $70,000.
In addition to drones and sensors, a total setup includes a long list of accessories. An operator specializing in real estate but also doing mapping and inspection work says that the kit includes dual controls, iPads, a day’s worth of batteries, sun shapes, LiPO battery bags, and a quad charging station: don’t forget, you’ll need cases to carry it all around.
#3. You might need more than one. Almost all of the operators that we surveyed mentioned the need for redundancy. Most use a less expensive prosumer drone as a backup – the most common being a DJI product like a Mavic or Phantom – but the second set is a valuable piece of the kit. If your mission requires data at any time, you must ensure that you are prepared for potential problems with aircraft or instruments: many drone applications like environmental monitoring happen in remote areas, where phoning for quick backup is not be a viable option. In addition, some professional operators use a second, less expensive drone for risky tasks that have a higher chance of incurring equipment damage.
Some of the operators we spoke with had costly kits, but others were doing incredible – and profitable – work with much less expensive aircraft. Most viewed the equipment as a long-term investment, gradually adding to their toolkit over time. The pace of innovation favors commercial operators: drone upgrades happen so frequently that pros can sometimes score lightly used equipment only a few months old. New operators who want to start building their kit should take a long term approach: do careful research to determine real needs first, and upgrade only when your old equipment is no longer able to do the job.
Miriam McNabb is the CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. She writes for DRONELIFE on current news, financial trends, and FAA regulations. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.