Before we start this discussion, Google this, "DJI Phantom 4 Pro". See any links to Amazon? B&H? The DJI Store? How much are those bad boys selling for? Not much, right? The average cost of DJI Phantom 4 Pro right now is right around the $1600-$1900 range, depending on what options you choose, and of course not forgetting Uncle Sam’s cut. This is great if you love drones, or you’re an avid photographer, but what does this actually mean? It means that a professional flying camera is now officially available at your finger tips, for a relatively low cost, as compared to other systems on the market. With its 20 MP camera, ability to shoot 4K at 60 fps (frames per second), and colorful, clear, high resolution images, its no wonder this drone has quickly become one of the most popular consumer drones. And with its endless third party applications, with the ability create 3D models, accurately survey wide areas, manage crop health, and so much more, its quickly becoming a valuable asset for commercial operators on a budget.
But just because the initial cost of buying the setup is inexpensive, it doesn't give us a total overview of what it takes to integrate sUAS into our working environments. Many think its simple. Order a drone, open the box, begin flying complex maps, taking photos, and adding creativity to our websites, social media, and other platforms. The cost associated with operating a drone for hire can go beyond just the cost of the system. What many seem to not factor in is the cost of your time, and as someone who began flying drones about 4 years ago, I can safely say this is not something one can learn overnight. With many systems having GPS stabilization, operators can get very comfortable right away flying drones, only to realize later when GPS signal is lost, they aren't as stable anymore.
That’s for another article though. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of hiring a drone operator to be an employee on your staff. As always we start with the good stuff.
Pro # 1.) Always Ready and Always Available
Having a dedicated UAS operator on your team is a fantastic resource. Especially if you need the operation done on a tight schedule. This person can also be someone who holds another skill for you. Take for instance a private engineering firm. One of your employees who was already on the books, now has an additional skill, can perform all of the work in house, and can provide quick, all rights to you, data on short notice.
Pro #2.) Secure Files and Confidentiality
In an age where credit fraud, hacking, and online attacks seem to be more and more prevalent, the idea of having someone come in, collect sensitive data, and then store it for a period of time, or possibly even having to share the rights to this footage, hiring out can present a wealth of problems. When you contract in, you hold onto the files securely, and you have total control over each of them, where they are used, how they are used, and who is able to access them. For some of our clients at B&C Aerial Solutions, security of files and data collected is key to a successful operation, and managing their patents, and processes.
Pro #3.) Compensation
Hiring in a contractor can be expensive. While a company doesn't need to pay for the individual’s benefits, there is no doubt that a contractor will have a compensation rate which is significantly higher than someone who is an hourly, or salaried employee. For some companies, the extent of their drone operations may be considered "entry level" and there may not be a need to hire in someone with years of experience. In the nicest way to put it, a company can get by with paying the on the books guy entry level pay, where they're not likely to get by with this hiring a contractor. Even an entry level one.
We will only hit on theses three topics today. But I am sure this article will generate some more feedback and we want to hear it as well. So, now let’s move on to the cons of hiring a drone operator.
Con #1.) Equipment and Upgrades
Its important in any technology based job to stay up to date with the most advanced, and well equipped systems. The drone industry is no different. Each month that passes something becomes outdated. Take for instance the Phantom 3 Professional. At its height operators were amazed with the clarity, ease of use, and numerous options amiable for this relatively cheap system. But within a year, the system became outdated by the Phantom 4 Pro. With its higher megapixel range, advanced vision system, and stable flight controls, it was a no brainer for contractors to update right away and sell off the old equipment before it became worth even less. When you employ someone on your staff, not only do you commit to keeping them trained and up to date, you commit to outfitting them with the best of the best. Otherwise you risk being behind the competitors. Trust me folks having one generation behind a drone is not the same as being behind one generation of computer or smart phone. These systems evolve fast, and leave behind the old system in a flash. When upgrades come along its now, or never.
Con #2.) Recurrent Training and Initial Start Ups
If you decide to simply add someone on your staff to be a Part 107 Operator, the cost of getting them their Part 107 Certificate is fairly cheap at just $150.00. However, it can cost to keep them well trained. Smart business owners know that its not just about money, its about time. It takes time to get someone certified, trained, and proficient. This Con makes picking up the phone and paying someone to come take those photos later this week sound much more appealing. With industry averages in the $100 - $250/hour for a contractor, you can easily cut your costs by choosing a team with exactly what you need, and using them for a set amount of time weekly, monthly, or as needed. Hang onto this thought as we will discuss in greater detail later.
Con #3.) Compensation
Sometimes what can be your pro, turns out to also be a massive downside as well. Remember back in Pro 3# how we talked about having an employee in house mean you can get away with paying them somewhat less than perhaps industry standard? What happens when you find a person, with a very valuable skill, who has other valuable skills, and doesn’t want to take such a huge pay cut? Anyone who understands what value a UAS fleet can bring to a company’s arsenal will expect to be compensated for such skill sets. Any one who already has a skill such as a PLS will expect to be compensated higher than their counterparts for having the role of UAV pilot now, as well. In some instances, the benefits offered by a company can outweigh this, and lead a person to take a lesser pay for such activity. However, this isn’t proven. In fact, what seems to more proven is the abundance of companies which pay their in house operators far less than what they are actually worth. As an example, a pilot, who is now part of our Nationwide Pilot Network, was offered a management position with an oil field service company. The candidate was tasked with managing several pilots, traveling quite often, and would be required to relocate. Compensation? Just under $40,000 annually, no relocation included. Granted there are some other factors to take into account here such as what the company's budget is/was at the time for such a staff member. However, this pattern of UAS pilots being undervalued is all too common now, and certified operators looking for permanent work under someone else's roof have noticed as well.
Con #4.) Liability and Insurance
Recently when I was speaking with a local construction company, I asked them what had caused them not to integrate UAS onto their worksites in house as of yet, and their first answer was “too much liability”. In an environment like a construction site, safety is of course at the top of the list for each person. With OSHA always on the lookout for violations, and injuries occurring without warning, its not a surprise, though. One aspect of drones which can be a tough challenge are the liabilities which come with operating them. In some cases, it can be difficult to find an insurer who will provide a reasonable policy for companies who have never operated drones before. With so much to worry about in normal daily operations, why add an additional hassle to the mix? And to expand on this thought just a step further, what if you only need UAS operations a few times a year, or once every quarter? Why take the time to carry a policy every year that you really only use a few times, and have to pay for the system when it sits on the shelf. I’ve spoken with company executives who differ on this argument. Some say the liability was no issue for them, and integrating was easy enough. However, others have said finding a policy which works for them, is cost effective, and covers their needs, isn’t always easy. This is why they chose to go outside to a professional team who carries a policy for various types of work inside a selected industry, and has a proven safety record.
Now that we have addressed some of the Pros and Cons to hiring an employee to be part of your permanent staff, we can move on to talk about the pros and cons of contracting this type of work out. So, check back next week for Part 2, and the conclusion of this topic!
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