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Career Pilot: UAS opportunitiesCareer Pilot: UAS opportunities

Would you consider a career as a drone pilot?

Airplane pilots may shudder at the thought of guiding a winged machine through the atmosphere while perched in a land-based office, van, tent, or foxhole.
Advanced Pilot October/November 2020
Photography by Mike Fizer

But for tens of thousands of remote pilots, operating a drone or, more formally, unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is a sure indication that they are on aviation’s cutting edge.

No doubt, the term UAS or drone has captured at least some passing attention of every pilot. To some, it’s merely a flying toy with a camera strapped to it so cool video can be shot and uploaded to YouTube. In fact, the UAS movement is way more than that.

According to the FAA’s most recent assessment, 1,673,404 drones are registered in the United States. There are 481,848 commercial devices registered, along with 1,188,045 recreational units. Some 187,366 remote pilots have been certified and the number continues to grow.

The breadth and scope of the UAS movement is mind boggling. First, there is the question of FAA certification. If flying these gizmos for fun, have at it as long as the drone is registered if required, it weighs less than 55 pounds, and you follow the rules for operating it ( However, once you use that system to earn a dollar then a remote pilot certificate is required based on Part 107 of the federal aviation regulations.

If you already have an FAA pilot certificate, earning the remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating is much simpler than starting from scratch without a pilot certificate (see “Always Learning: Remote Pilot,” July 2020 Flight Training). For more details on remote pilot certification, see or check out AOPA’s drone pilot resources at

The industry is so new that salary data comes from several sources. states, “Overall, the average earnings of a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] pilot in the U.S. amounts to $78,389 annually.” At, “the average earning of a UAV pilot is about $86,622 annually.” At, the number is “about $75,000 per year on the average.” Drone opportunities may be in real estate, construction and mining, filmmaking, public safety, journalism, agriculture, transportation, energy, telecommunications, and more.

How best to prepare? Although a college degree is not essential, several collegiate programs specialize in preparing future drone flying experts. These include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kent State University, Purdue, Oklahoma State University, Indiana State University, Kansas State University, University of North Dakota, Liberty University, South Dakota State University, Northwestern Michigan College, and Middle Tennessee State University. All of these schools have traditional flight programs as well.

Amazon is just one company using drone technology to deliver packages. UPS Flight Forward Inc. last October announced that it had earned an FAA Part 135 air carrier certificate to operate a drone airline primarily to deliver medical supplies.

The next evolution in this state of automation is urban air mobility. Put simply, imagine a drone that carries a passenger. Airbus is on the way, among many others. Honeywell is deploying more resources to autonomous flight avionics, electric and hybrid-electric propulsion, and detect and avoid systems.

Aviation has entered a new age with opportunity for those who embrace it.

Wayne Phillips

Wayne Phillips manages the Airline Training Orientation Program.

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