Commercial Drone Pilots: Contract Out or Hire In-House?
It is now easier than ever for businesses in a variety of industries — from construction and surveying, to mining and agriculture — to use drones in their everyday operations. For many large companies, it isn’t a question of ‘if’, but rather ‘when’ and ‘how’ they will incorporate drones into their business models. As your own company evaluates its future with drones, you may find yourself asking: do we contract a drone service provider, or do we start an in-house operation?
Thousands of drone service providers were newly certified just in the last half of 2016 alone, so there is no shortage of qualified contractors to choose from. On the other hand, some large companies are finding a benefit to building their own in-house teams. To help companies in their decision-making process, we’ve gathered the advice of some of the most experienced commercial drone users in our community.
Benefits of Contracting a Drone Service Provider
Navigating industry regulations
There are many regulations that determine what can and can’t be done when flying a commercial drone. To ensure compliance, airspace restrictions need to be checked before each flight. Attention must be paid to proper line-of-sight, as well as altitude and speed restrictions. Some companies simply do not want the hassle of navigating these regulations, opting to contract this out instead.
Kyle Fallwell, owner of Bon Air Drone, is also an experienced pilot who is familiar navigating complex airspace. “Surveyors want to use this technology,” said Kyle, “but they don’t know how to do it, how to process it, the airspace side of it, the liability and everything else that can come with it. They don’t want to touch it, they want to outsource it.”
Compensate for lack of in-house expertise
A good drone operator must be able to produce accurate, high-quality images and maps, and deliver those maps in the outputs that are most suited to each situation. Although advances in the drone industry have simplified this process, some companies are finding they don’t have the time and resources necessary to create and maintain in-house drone experts.
High turnover in some industries may mean having to regularly re-train new in-house operators. In other situations, existing staff simply don’t have the time to develop the necessary skills.
“Many [companies] want to receive high quality, accurate data without having to worry about everything that happens in between.” -Kyle Falwell
Address liability concerns
Flying a drone is generally safe, especially with the hardware advances that have taken place over the past few years. That being said, as in any industry, accidents do happen. A contracted service provider can shoulder the additional liabilities that come with operating drones.
As an additional consideration, rates and coverage amounts for UAV insurance are based on a company having thorough, well-tested drone operating procedures, documented pilot trainings and proper safety controls. Companies just entering the drone sphere may decide that it is not cost effective to develop the in-house operating procedures required to get the level of coverage they need.
Proof of concept
Even if your company is ideally positioned to build out its own operations, there can be a benefit to the old adage, “try before you buy.” Contracting with a drone service provider is a great way to test proof of concept before investing in training, certification and insurance. It can also be an effective, relatively low-cost way to create buy-in at various levels of the company.
Drone service provider Dale Parrish, of Hover Visions, points out that new clients often need to first experience drone maps in a real-world situation before deciding if a full-scale drone operation is right for their business.
“Once they’ve seen everything they can do, [companies] can begin to factor drones into various aspects of their business model.” — Dale Parrish
Benefits of Building an In-House Team
Develop in-house expertise
On the other side of the coin, even if your company doesn’t currently have in-house expertise, it might be something worth investing in. After all, in-house operators will know your industry and your particular company best, including its challenges, communication styles and specific software.
Beau Dealy of Apis Remote Sensing Systems, a drone service company with advanced GIS experience, notes that regardless of whether you contract out or develop in-house assets, it is especially important for your drone service team to understand your industry’s specific technologies. An in-house operation helps to ensure this.
“New technologies are ‘high touch’ and sometimes require a lot of explaining. You want [drone operators] who already ‘get it’ with respect to your way of doing things when you have questions. –Beau Dealy [click to tweet]
For companies that intend to fly drones regularly, building in-house assets may make the most financial sense. Russ Gibbs of construction giant Brasfield & Gorrie points out that startup costs for a drone operation are relatively low. “You can get a DJI Phantom 4 at your local Apple store, work with DroneDeploy to test, and you’re up and running at a very low entry cost,” says Russ.
Brasfield & Gorrie flies drones so regularly at its construction sites, that integrating them into the company’s everyday workflow was a cost-effective choice. With a growing number of enterprise solutions available through companies like DroneDeploy, the construction company continues to scale its drone operations as its needs grow.
Communication and collaboration
The benefits of drones don’t stop once the first map is produced and analyzed. Leaders in many industries are finding that drone mapping software makes daily communication smoother. By creating an in-house team, companies can put these tools in the hands of people at all levels of a project.
Construction project manager Nick Johnson, of Tilt Rock of Texas, has found that applications such as DroneDeploy’s cloud-based software and intuitive annotation features have improved collaboration across the board.
“Now, if I need a contractor to be aware of a design change before he lays pipe that day, I simply walk over to him with my tablet, blow up a particular section of overlaid plans and show him exactly what he needs to know.” — Nick Johnson
A Mix of Both Options
The choice between an in-house team or a contracted drone service provider is not necessarily an either-or decision. Some companies may want to test proof of concept and, once they’ve developed a good understanding of how drones can be used in their operations, work toward building an in-house team.
On the other side, some have found that the best way to manage risks is to start with an internal operation, develop a manual and checklists, and work through any wrinkles in workflows. At that point, as the need for drone flights grows, a company can integrate contracted drone service providers into an already established process.
This was the case with Brasfield & Gorrie. “I think you’ll see a lot of industrial companies starting with an internal operation and working with legal to make sure they’re doing things right,” says virtual design coordinator Hunter Cole. “But as we expand to sites further away, I imagine the majority of those flights will be performed by external vendors two years from now.”
Regardless of whether your company chooses to contract an external drone service provider or build an in-house team, it helps to stay agile. Keeping abreast of advancements and opportunities in drone technology will help companies regularly assess their needs and adapt along with the drone industry’s ever-changing landscape.
Where to Learn More
If your company is ready to start looking for a drone service provider, make sure to read our 5 tips for finding a drone mapping contractor. When you are ready to evaluate pilot profiles, consult our drone mapping directory.
Get Started with DroneDeploy
Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit www.dronedeploy.com to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.