Gig Economy Drone Operators Could Soon Pilot Last-Mile Delivery

Drone Operators Could Pilot Last-Mile Delivery

Is the gig economy about to take off – literally?

Gig work has a new potential subsector: drone piloting. Human pilots furloughed or laid off by airlines due to the COVID-19 travel downturn could soon find work as “pilots” for drones.

As reported by CNN, Connecticut-based Aquiline Drones is aiming to debut a smartphone app that will allow licensed drone operators to do short-term, project-based work as drone pilots. Use cases will likely include things like taking aerial pictures for public works projects or events like weddings.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that drone operators be certified. Aquiline is offering virtual classes beginning this month to help individuals get certification and set up their own LLC to operate drones.

The course costs $1,000 for beginners, but for existing airplane pilots, there’s a separate program for just $800. Those who complete the course will be able to finance drones and insurance through Aquiline at $1,500 annually (the drones cost $4,000 to buy outright).

Thus far, 1,500 members of the public and an additional 2,000 pilots have signed up for the program, according to Founder Barry Alexander. Aquiline aims to offer certified operators “drone-for-hire” gig work at $150 an hour.

For pilots, drone-based work could represent a lifeline of sorts, as job cuts mount in the struggling airline industry. U.S. airlines got $25 billion in stimulus funds earlier this year, but air travel has been slow to rebound from catastrophic lows, and carriers have been cutting pilots as a result.

United Airlines recently said it would eliminate 2,850 pilot jobs between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30. And late last month, Delta said it would cut more than 1,900 pilot jobs.

But the skies might soon get a bit more crowded amid an increasing emergence of drones – especially as part of last-mile delivery. The FAA announced plans earlier this year to set new standards for delivery drones. The guidelines would classify drones as a “special class” of airplanes, with regulations similar to those seen for business aircraft or small private planes.

We contend these rules will have the dual impact of making would-be customers more comfortable with the idea of drone delivery while opening the doors for trained drone pilots.

Amazon already got FAA approval this week to begin using Prime Air drones to deliver packages. In 2019, the eCommerce giant unveiled a drone that could deliver a package weighing up to five pounds within a 15-mile radius in under 30 minutes. And Alphabet, the corporate parent of Google, also has its own drone delivery service taking flight, with FAA approval in place as of April.

For now, drones are easily deployed to do things like aid in roof inspections or help insurance companies survey damage for claims. Such visual aids are indeed important in all sorts of applications.

But with the near-certain emergence of drones for last-mile delivery of a wide range of goods, pilot expertise will be crucial to ensure speed and safety. That will be especially true if the skies are cluttered or in cases where drones must deftly navigate tall structures (and maybe some pigeons) in urban environments.

For would-be freelance drone pilots, the idea of supplementing income through multiple revenue streams – and the use of specialized skill sets – has always been the inherent appeal of gig work.

As the airline industry looks likely to suffer for a long time and drones are coming to the gig economy, the phrase “earning your wings” could soon take on a whole new meaning.