Professional drones used for commercial purposes differ significantly from hobby drones. Professional drones may be used for hobby purposes; however, not all hobby drones are made for commercial flying.
To operate legally in the U.S., professional UAVs need to be registered with the FAA. If they weigh less than 55 lbs (including any payload), the registration can be done online.
For UAVs that weigh more than 55 lbs. the FAA requires a paper-based registration application to be used. All drones flown for commercial purposes need to be operated by an FAA-licensed pilot that has a current pilot’s certificate obtained by passing a test and paying a fee.
If you're flying professionally outside the United States, be sure to check with your aviation authority to make sure you are operating legally.
This guide reviews the best professional drones available for commercial pilots today. It also provides an in-depth buying guide to help you make the best decision possible.
Table of the Best Professional Drones
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
20MP / 4K
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
20MP / 4K
Yuneec Typhoon H Pro
12MP / 4K
DJI Mavic Pro
12MP / 4K
DJI Phantom 3 Professional
12MP / 4K
DJI Phantom 3 Standard
12MP / 2.7K
Features of Professional Drones
Professional drones usually have more features than hobby drones and may cost more. However, there are plenty of high-quality hobby drones used by serious drone-flying enthusiasts that could be used for commercial purposes as well.
Professional drones can be designed for special-use purposes such as land surveying or to work in certain industry sectors such as agriculture or real estate. The main distinction between a hobby drone and a professional drone is made by the FAA. If the drone is flown and the operator is paid or receives in-kind contributions for flying the drone, it is then considered a professional drone being used for commercial purposes.
Under certain circumstances, such as flying drones in designated public areas, a hobby drone can be flown without needing to have an operator’s certification from the FAA. However, any commercial drone flying requires the operator to have an FAA remote pilot certificate that is in good standing. Students, over the age of 16, may practice without being certified but only under the supervision of a certified UAV pilot. Teaching drone flying is a good thing for professional drone flyers to do as a way to make extra money.
Key Specifications of Professional Drones
Compared to recreational drones, professional drones are built better and have higher quality features. As an example, for surveillance and photography, professional drones typically have better quality cameras. Some carry cameras with the ability to record high-definition video and slow motion.
A professional drone may offer different flight modes such as when the operator flies the drone with computer assistance or while wearing virtual reality headgear. Flight times may be longer for commercial drones and their range may be extended.
How Much Does a Commercial UAV Cost?
A commercial UAV may cost anywhere from $300 to $4,000+ depending on the job performance needs and project requirements. A new professional pilot would do just fine with something in the $500-$1,000 range to get started. Many commercial flyers own multiple professional drones and use them for a variety of different tasks as required on various projects.
Benefits of Professional Drones
Expertly-trained, commercial UAV pilots are in high demand. Drone technology continues to improve, which requires pilots who stay current with the changes and who are familiar with the operations of the newest models.
The drone industry sector is rapidly expanding. This creates more opportunities for professional pilots. Professional drone-flying creates a good source of income. Even sophisticated hobby flyers may also want to fly commercially part-time. They may benefit from this by reducing the costs of maintaining hobby drones when flying them for pay some of the time.
Professional drones are able to accomplish things in a more cost-efficient and safer way than using another type of aircraft. For example, many of the same surveillance activities that are performed by manned helicopters can be achieved in a lower-cost way by using drones instead.
How to Choose a Commercial Drone
Buying a commercial UAV is a fairly complex purchase with many things to consider. Here are some important things to think about and investigate when making a decision:
There are general purpose drones, which have the flexibility to be configured for different uses. There are also drones made for specific purposes. Make of list of the potential uses for your new drone. If possible, allow for some expanded uses, which can be accommodated by a reconfiguration of the drone, such as swapping out a camera with another one.
If the usage is very specific, choose a drone that can handle those exact demands. If you do not know all the potential uses or cannot imagine them, consider buying a general-use drone that can be outfitted, as required, for each project.
Once the usage list is made, determine the operating environment that the drone will experience. Consider important things such as temperature and weather conditions. For example, the requirements are completely different for flying a drone in hurricane conditions for weather monitoring and flying a drone over a volcano to monitor volcanic activity.
The projects for flying professional drones may have specific requirements that need to be considered. Examples are being in a remote location, needing to fly long distances, and the range of wireless connectivity that is possible and needed.
Professional UAV pilots may need to operate a drone using manual controls along with visual line-of-sight, virtual reality (VR) capability, or computer-aided flying based on GPS coordinates.
Payload capacity should be chosen to be greater than the maximum weight of anything that might need to be carried by the drone. Flying a drone at or near capacity is dangerous and may cause the drone to crash. Whenever possible, use no more than half the maximum capacity as a guide to choosing an operational drone that will work well carrying the weight required.
Flying time is a main consideration for commercial drones because it is one of the most important factors that have an impact on the cost of the operations. Usually, more time in the air means more earnings from flying.
For some projects, having sufficient flying time is critical in order to safely be able to accomplish a job. For example, if the project is to take aerial footage of a yacht that is anchored offshore, the drone has to be able to fly out to the boat, fly around it, and return to shore within the flying time. Otherwise, it could crash and be lost in the water.
Even drones not specifically meant to be used in bad weather may need to be weather-resistant to withstand conditions that the drone might experience. Take into consideration the places where the drone will fly and the average minimum and maximum temperatures for those areas as well as the average rainfall. Note any challenges that might come up for different times of the year.
Some drones can be modified with removable accessories to provide more or less weather-proofing as required. For example, custom-made thermal blankets can be added in winter and then removed for cooler operations during summer.
Commercial drones may have features that require skilled operators. Some drones are much easier to fly than others. The important thing to consider is that ease-of-use should be sufficient to allow safe operation by a qualified UAV pilot.
Safety features are very desirable if they are able to reduce the risk of accidents or the damages caused if an accident does occur. For example, liability and damage may be reduced by flying drones that have automatic collision avoidance.
Customized capabilities may come from hardware options and integration with software applications. For example, drones flown for specific purposes can connect to software applications running on ground computers for automatic data collection or drone-flight guidance.
There are dozens of drone accessories available. They include such things as memory cards for onboard cameras, propeller guards, battery charging stations, and carrying cases. Reviewing the accessories that are available for use with a specific drone model can be a way to decide between different drones of a similar capability and price.
The maintenance requirements for a drone need to be considered because these costs become part of the calculation of the overall operating costs.
Like any commercial equipment, buying a drone from a reputable manufacturer with a robust extended warranty is very desirable.
The useful life is an estimate of how long a drone can be in service when maintained properly. This estimate is another part of the calculation of the overall operating costs.
Notice that I put this consideration almost last on the list, even though it is the first thing many think about. The reason for this is that if the UAV meets or exceeds your needs the price of it is only useful data to compare it to others with similar capabilities.
If in doubt, lean towards the more-costly and better solution. If your commercial flying business is successful, in six months you probably will not remember what you paid for the drone. However, if you work with a drone that frustrates you frequently, you will certainly remember that you made the choice of not buying the one you really wanted. Moreover, a higher-priced, better-quality drone will have a greater resale value.
Go ahead and give yourself permission to buy the best drone you can find for your needs. Finance the purchase if necessary. Be sure to insure your professional drone for its replacement cost if it is lost, stolen, or damaged in an accident.
Overall operating costs are calculated by using the following figures:
- Total purchase costs including the price of all the accessories.
- Financing and insurance costs.
- Variable costs of operating, such as the electricity used to re-charge the batteries.
- Estimated maintenance costs and an allocation for repairs.
- Estimated useful life in flight hours.
Total all the costs and divide by the estimated life to find the expected hourly operating costs. Add your costs for labor and then put a profit margin on top of that and you will have a sound basis for your hourly-billing rates.
If you have to bid a job on a flat fee basis, then guess the number of hours it takes to do the job and use this hourly rate times the estimated job hours, to calculate a full flat-fee price.
Now that the considerations are understood, here is a convenient checklist that you can to use in order to make sure all the important parameters are considered:
- Intended Usage
- Project Requirements
- Operator Requirements
- Payload Capacity
- Flying Time
- Weather Resistance
- Safety Features
- Customization Capabilities
- Maintenance Requirements
- Useful Life
- Purchase Cost
- Operating Costs
- Unique Requirements
I think making a spreadsheet and using this checklist makes it easy to compare one type of drone to others. In that way, you can see where trade-offs may need to be made when choosing between different drones.
The Advantages of High-Quality Drones made for Professional Pilots
I think owning high-quality drones and being able to advertise your capabilities is a very good tool to use in order to market your professional services.
One of the strongest markets for professional drone services is drone photography of real estate. Fits Small Business published the guide called Real Estate Drone Photography & Video Pricing 2018. They report that these jobs pay $150 to $300 for about ten aerial photos and $300 to $1,000 for a high-quality aerial video of one to five minutes.
Here are examples of my favorite high-quality videos that incorporate some drone footage:
Top Professional Drones - Reviews
1. DJI Mavic 2 Pro - Best Overall
The DJI Mavic 2 comes with a high-quality LiD-20c Hasselblad camera that captures 20-megapixels images. The images have stunning clarity, crisp details, and beautiful color. This is a DJI drone that is very well-liked by professionals.
This drone has automatic, omnidirectional, collision-avoidance protection. It has up to 31 minutes of flying time. It can reach a speed up to 44 mph. It carries a three-axis gimbal-mounted camera that rotates freely and that can hold its position accurately for steady shots.
It has 8 MB of internal storage and SD memory card support of up to 128 GB of extra storage. It comes with a combo bundle of accessories that includes extra batteries, a car charger, a charging hub, extra propellers, and a shoulder bag.
- Beautiful, high-quality images.
- Obstacle sensing and collision avoidance.
- Fast flying speed and long flight time.
- A larger investment than other drones
This is the top-of-the-line drone for the DJI Phantom series. It has a 20 megapixels camera and can capture video at 60 frames per second in 4k. This gives it the ability to create fantastic slow-motion videos.
The DJI Phantom 4 has a five-directional object-sensing system for automatic crash-collision avoidance. The camera offers better capture capabilities when compared to a GoPro Hero 5 and a follow-me feature that makes this drone a favorite for capturing extreme-sports footage.
The bundle includes many desirable accessories such as a carrying backpack, an extra battery, an extra charging hub, an extra high-capacity memory card, a card reader, an extra-long 10’ connection cable for IoS devices, and a complete drone-care kit.
- Very high-quality image capture.
- Good for slow-motion shots.
- Very stable when flying.
- Instruction manual is not as clear as it could be.
The Yuneec Typhoon H Pro is a hexacopter with six blades for added stability and accurate control. It operates with Intel’s RealSense technology and records video in 4k ultra-high-definition (UHD) with a gimbal camera that fully rotates.
The flight controls for this drone are well stabilized with five fail-safe rotors and GPS positioning. It has an auto takeoff and landing mode as well as six autonomous flying modes that make it really easy to fly, even for those with no drone-flying experience.
- Gimbal camera has a 98-degree field of view using its wide-angle lens.
- Ultrasonic collision avoidance.
- Programmable flying routes.
- Propeller guards must be purchased separately.
The Mavic Pro includes everything needed to operate the drone and some nice accessories.
This drone folds up to become very compact (about the size of a water bottle). That makes it easy to take it anywhere. It captures 4k video. This is a good drone choice to take along if hiking to a location or getting there by using a mountain bike.
It flies fast up to 40 mph and has a flight time of up to 27 minutes. Its control system can operate with up to 4.3 miles of unobstructed transmission range. It uses vision positioning combined with GPS and GLONASS (Russian satellite system) to allow it to accurately fly both indoors and outdoors.
- Fly by smartphone or WIFI control.
- Smart positioning using US and Russian satellites.
- Automatic obstacle avoidance.
- Customer service could be improved.
This is the professional version of the DJI Phantom series that has more features than the standard version. This quadcopter captures UHD 4k video at 30 frames per second that can be streamed live.
It also makes a full-resolution recording of the video that is stored on an onboard microSD memory card. It takes high-resolution photos of 12 megapixels.
A battery and a remote are packaged with this drone so it is ready to fly out of the box. The live video-streaming can be viewed on a mobile device or a smartphone by using the free Go App.
A visual-positioning system, which is a feature not available in the standard version, helps this drone fly well while indoors.
Outdoor range is three-quarters of a mile when the controller has an unobstructed connection to the drone.
- Can fly well indoors.
- Captures high-definition video.
- Extended range.
- Firmware updates can be a little confusing.
6. DJI Phantom 3 Standard — Best Budget Commercial Drone
This model can be considered a high-quality hobby drone or an entry-level professional drone. It has flight assistance based on GPS coordinates that helps the drone fly safely.
The best features of this drone are its video-capturing capabilities. The camera is attached to the drone using a three-axis stabilized mount for clear image capture.
It can record 2.7K video, which sends a 720-pixel high-definition real-time video stream to a smartphone. Advanced camera controls, using the free Go App on a mobile device or smartphone, allow a user to record the camera perspective according to GPS coordinates. These can focus the camera view on a point of interest, waypoints, or make the camera operate in a follow-me mode.
The Phantom 3 Standard can be controlled for a line-of-sight range of up to one-half mile. Flight time is up to 25 minutes on a fully-charged battery that comes with the drone.
- Automatic return home via GPS location.
- Live video streaming.
- Good range and flying time.
- For technically challenged people, set up may be a bit difficult.