4 tips for entrepreneurial RPAS pilots in Canada
The multi-billion-dollar commercial drone industry has been poised for takeoff in Canada since 2016. Reality check: it’s late 2019 and much of it is still poised. The truth is that some parts of the industry are doing really well while other segments have stalled and a few have flamed out completely.
In this article we’re addressing the small business owners/pilots who have recently entered the industry, own one or two drones, and find themselves struggling to achieve sustainable revenue or regular work.
Before we get to the pilots, it’s worth noting that the drone ecosystem is quite complex. The major components are
- Hardware manufacturers
- Software developers
- Government regulators
- Flight management providers
- Training providers
- End users/service providers (public services, videography, mapping, delivery, analytics, security, transportation, inspection, agriculture, etc.)
Whether it’s in service deployment, testing, or teaching, there’s always a need for qualified pilots.
So, how many drone pilots are there in Canada? There are two types of certification – Basic and Advanced (a third type, Flight Reviewer, is the same as Advanced except that Reviewers are certified to ‘test’ new pilots). Data on total numbers are sketchy but it’s likely that there are several thousand Basic certified pilots; however, they can’t carry out commercial work (that’s where most of the money is) because they have restrictions on where they can operate. Advanced pilots can operate almost anywhere (subject to regulations) and we estimate there are about 2,000 of them across Canada at this time.
2,000 or so pilots to service a multi-billion-dollar industry? All of them must be millionaires! Not quite. Let’s peel back the glitter and figure out what’s really going on. Of the 2,000, a small number are employed full-time by construction, mining, public services, and so on. They make decent money but usually mix flying with other duties such as data analysis or reporting. A majority, however, are freelance operators who are – you guessed it – poised for take off. What’s holding them back?
First of all, the multi-billion figures being tossed around broadly relate to sales. That means it’s the hardware and software companies that are first in line to that goldmine. Given their financial investment, intellectual capital, and high exposure to risk, that seems fair. Next in line are the users of that hardware and/or software. They either make or save money from drones and related software depending on their business.
Closer to ground level are the freelance pilots. Many have invested in hardware, paid for Advanced certification, signed up with pilot-for-hire networks and are waiting for the revenue to flow in. It promises to be a lengthy wait. There are a couple of reasons for this sluggish uptake.
- Tech adoption does not turn on a dime. Companies that would benefit most from drone technology often have well-established current processes. Changing or possibly eliminating existing processes will only occur if there’s a compelling case to do so. It’s unlikely that pilots can make the business case for these organizations.
- Many pilots do not have direct access to major end users. It’s a rare breed of pilot that has industry knowledge and contacts and a solid reputation within multiple related industries – all the ingredients needed to influence an end user to bridge the gap between current and future.
So, what should the recently-qualified entrepreneurial pilot do? How does one develop this new opportunity? Here are 4 tips:
- Focus on one or more related industries. Build up your network by connecting with people within those industries. Needless to say, research the right industries – the ones that require difficult or frequent inspections.
- Do more than offer a drone service. It’s critical to offer a drone solution. Do more than collect data – any analysis or reporting will please your customer. It may even enable you to win a higher price-point for your services because you amplify your worth when you offer a value-add. Better still, offer to help your clients with the integration of your service. That way, you’ll understand their business better and, thereby, improve your service. You’ll also take the critical step of moving from ‘service provider’ (easily replaceable) to ‘trusted partner’ (not easy to replace). Build your reputation on your ability to provide solutions, not cheap services. Focus your service offer on your outputs, i.e., the data you collect and the solutions you derive from those data.
- Price it right. There’s a perceived rate for everything – including cutting edge tech services. Investing in a drone doesn’t enable you to charge rocket ship rates. Your drone is relatively unimportant in the scheme of things. It’s merely a tool for gathering data, like a smartphone with propellers. Make sure you know what the financial advantages of your service offer are so that you can offer a credible explanation of your fees (if asked). However, do not compete on price or make that a focal point of your offer.
- Learn to operate a drone properly. Really. A surprisingly high percentage of new pilots have very limited actual flying time. You can pass the Ground School exam and get a Basic certificate without ever laying eyes on a drone. You need to do a bit more to get an Advanced certificate because you have to pass an in-person flight review. A few hours of practice will get you through the flight test but you’ll still be a very ineffective operator if you then immediately try your hand at commercial work. Find the time to practice.
There’s no easy way forward but working on these tips will help you focus and give you a better chance of getting your new business to take off. Literally.