One of the most frequent refrains we hear from customers goes something like, "You have such a great job! I keep telling my ________ (insert: daughter, son, cousin, nephew, niece, retired father, friend, etc.) they need to buy a drone and start a business too!"
There's this widespread belief in 2018 that all it takes to operate a successful drone services business is ownership of a camera drone (which can now be purchased relatively cheaply) and a Part 107 certification (which is very easy to obtain). This exceedingly low barrier of entry is why DJI is making a large fortune selling drones, the FAA has signed up over 60,000 Part 107 pilots in two years (with over 3,000 in greater Denver alone), and the drone services industry is neck deep in "businesses" that just learned to fly their new drone last month and otherwise have zero qualifications or experience in the services they're offering unsuspecting customers. In reality, the drone and the certificate are a minuscule part of what it takes it provide customers with excellent experiences and a high-quality product. Anyone can own and fly a drone. It takes years of experience, skill development, and an eye for detail to provide clients a quality product.
So how is someone seeking to utilize drone services supposed to wade through this quagmire? How can you avoid being conned and have a project ruined by inexperienced and unskilled providers misrepresenting themselves as skilled and experienced? Grab a coffee, get comfy, and read on to follow us through an industry insider's important, informative, and occasionally humorous discussion of what potential customers can and, more importantly, cannot use to gauge the suitability and quality of a drone services provider.
Part 107 Certification:
This metric should be dispatched with first, because it's often the most used to market a new drone business. You've seen the ads and social media posts: "Use us because we're FAA Part 107 certified... $11,000 fines if you don't!" Immediate red flag. Selling themselves on nothing other than their Part 107 certification is a very common practice among inexperienced drone service providers that don't have enough other qualifications to sell themselves on. This is a meaningless metric to measure quality by. Why?
Because it is ridiculously easy to obtain a Part 107 Cert. Those pretending otherwise are trying to hide behind this certification as if it's some kind of skills and experience qualification. The Part 107 Cert is a short, multi-choice test on weather, basic aircraft physics, and FAA regulations which costs only $150 to take, can be taken repeatedly until passed, and requires a paltry 70% grade for passing. There is no practical test of flight skill, filming skill, specific drone operational knowledge, or anything that goes into providing a quality product and service to customers. A provider having a Part 107, while required to legally do business in the US, is NOT an indication of quality any more than having a required food safety cert is an indication a restaurant will provide you with tasty food and attentive service.
You wouldn't hire a stranger off the street to photograph your wedding just because they have an expensive camera. You would want to see their portfolio, past work examples, and compare it all with other photographers to make sure you're getting the best quality work for your money. It's no different in the drone industry. High credit card limits and day jobs have allowed part-time and side job drone service providers to load up on expensive and impressive looking equipment... that they don't have the skills or experience to get the most out of. Is the provider selling themselves based on their equipment? Red flag.
On the flip side of this, many providers are instead trying to conceal the fact that they use inadequate equipment. Be wary if you see a website full of professional looking images of expensive drone and camera equipment - implying this is actually the equipment in use. Red flag. Does the quality of the images and video in their portfolio match the level of the equipment they're showcasing on their website? In most cases these are purchased stock photos being used to misrepresent the equipment that the company will actually be using on your project. Does the provider boast themselves as a "partner" with major manufacturers like: Nikon, DJI, Adobe, Parrot, or any other large brand name? This should also be a red flag. It is almost always a misrepresentation of what, in reality, amounts to nothing more than the provider owning the manufacturer's normal, off-the-shelf equipment. Ask them to explain what these "partnerships" entail.
In the end, equipment is merely a tool, not a barometer for skill or quality. Experienced providers will use the right tool for each job and the equipment becomes a transparent part of the process of delivering excellent work. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding... or in this case in the portfolio. Just as you would with a wedding photographer, check the company's portfolio. How many tangible examples of actual paid projects do they have? Or is it mostly just explanations of what they have “done” or have "experience" in? What is the actual quality level of this work? Claims of experience and expertise count for nothing when it comes time to execute your job. Only actual examples of past customer deliverables provide an adequate level of assurance of the quality you'll receive on your deliverables.
This brings us to...
You've probably seen it before, and if you haven't shopped around enough yet, you'll see it soon enough. Crooked horizons, pure white skies, blue roofs that should be white, cartoonish color saturation, shots of buildings that only really show the roof, etc. There's a widespread lack of attention to detail and consistency across the drone services industry and much of it has to do with the fact that many providers have no photography background or training to draw experience from. Making this situation worse, drone photography is still new and novel enough that the average person is so captivated by any aerial view that these issues tend to go overlooked. Often, potential clients shopping drone providers for the first time don't even notice these types of quality problems until someone specifically points them out. Do you want to take the chance that your customers won't notice them?
If the provider has multiple examples from a single shoot, do the colors in the pictures all match from one to another? Is one image warm tinted while the rest are cool tinted? Are skies, water, and white shadowed areas showing some unnatural, cartoonish blue hue? If so, the provider may be less experienced when it comes to the editing process and/or trying to make poorly composed photos more interesting by dialing up the saturation. Video is often worse, because video requires an even more fine-tuned set of skills. Cinematic, smooth drone video takes years of experience to master. Inexperienced providers will stick to shots that are simple to execute (and also very boring to watch in your final product): side to side, forward and backward, maybe a slow pan, and lack the professional feel of shots with complex movement. When viewing video examples, be sure to pay attention to whether the shots are fluid, smooth, and complex, or whether they seem jerky, awkward, start/stop abruptly, boring, jittery, or look as if they're vibrating jello or stuttery.
We see these issues even in the work of many businesses claiming to have lots of experience and expertise. Again, the proof is in the pudding. Never just take anyone's word for their quality and experience - study their actual work examples.
Area of coverage:
Ever come across a company that boasts nationwide coverage for all of your drone needs? You certainly will while shopping around. Ever wonder how they manage that? Maybe not, but you should. These companies range from NYSE traded corporations to single-operators that farm out work. Nearly all of these national coverage companies are able to cover jobs nationally because they utilize 1099 subcontractors (not actual employees) to perform the jobs that are not within their home area. These subcontractors are often barely known and untested pilots that are hired off of staffing sites, Facebook, and Craigslist ads to hopefully complete your job correctly. These companies gamble with your time and money, and reap the benefits while paying the actual pilots very little. They use your projects as live interviews and tests to sift through a massive pool of constantly turning over pilot candidates.
Utilize local drone service providers whenever possible - you'll know exactly who's flying and directing your project. You'll be able to see exactly what quality level of work that specific pilot has done in the past. When this isn't possible or practical, be sure to ask the national level companies what their pilot vetting process is, who's actually going to fly your project, and whether the company can provide any work examples from that specific pilot.
Scope of capabilities:
Part of the mentality of "anyone can run a drone business if they simply own a drone" is that anyone can therefore also do any type of work a drone is capable of doing whether they have actual knowledge of that work/industry or not. One provider cannot be an expert at everything - jack of all trades, master of none. Red flag: beware of providers that claim to be experts in everything under the sun: photo, video, survey, agriculture, mapping, thermal, etc. - more than likely, they aren't. Fancy websites with lots of Flash animation don't get land surveyed accurately and stock photos of NDVI maps don't mean the provider can interpret your crop health properly. It's probably getting old by now, but as before, the proof is in the pudding. Ask for real-world work examples of services they claim to provide.
Good providers are still able to complete a wide variety of jobs through networking and partnerships with other businesses who specialize in the aspects of those jobs the provider does not. For example - we partner with Denver City Studios on jobs involving complex ground video, weddings, and interviews. We do what we do best (aerial video) and DCS does what they do best (ground video).
Conclusion/Summary/Too long;didn't want to read the rest:
Ran out of coffee before you made it through the whole post? No worries, because all of these aspects of drone service provider selection boil down to one easily identifiable selection trait...
Providers that are truly experienced, skilled, and do high-quality work sell themselves on that work with websites that contain a deep portfolio of high-quality, real-world client deliverables. They don't sell their Part 107 Cert, insurance, flashy website with shallow content, expensive equipment, BBB accreditation, claimed ability to do it all and do it everywhere, or claimed expertise they don't immediately back up with a work portfolio. Those things are superfluous to the one thing that's most important to potential clients: will this provider exceed my expectations in the project I trust them with?
This is why we sell our work. This is why our slogan and mission of Elevated Standards is important to us. This is why our website contains one of the largest and highest quality work portfolios of any drone services provider in Colorado. We're proud of the work we do. We know we're one of the best. We know you'll agree when we show you what we've done.