Choosing the right drone operator for the job

21 August 2015 , by antoine

Finding a drone operator for aerial cinematography/photography can sometime look like a difficult task. The drone market is expanding very quickly, concurrence is getting harder everyday between operators and prices can vary from simple to double for a given job.

Wether you are a cinema or commercial director, a photograph or anyone who would require aerial views, you know that drone regulations are there and are real and sometimes complicated.  This article is written to summarize all the essentials you should check before hiring someone and that could prevent you getting in situations where images aren’t suitable for your use, or any type of lawsuit that could result from hiring someone with no authorizations/insurance.


« Safety always comes first ! », that’s why it’s the first thing we’ll talk about in this article.


As for every contractor, you want to work with someone you can relate to. If the feeling isn’t there, sometimes it’s better to pick someone else.


Gear is a very important part of the job, even though it’s not the most important. Gear should always be suited to the situation, but will not make up for someone bad working habits and lack of professionalism.


Work with professionnals ! Always check the portfolio before hiring someone.

Define your needs

First things first, you need to figure out what you really need. Prior to contacting drone operators for quotes, you have to ask yourself the following questions :

  • What type of imagery?

    Do you need video, photo, DEM maps, orthophoto, thermal images … ?

  • Where ?

    Where are you planning to shoot aerial footage? Is it over a populated area like a city, a restricted place, a military zone or a place close to an airport ? You should try and identify the risks or seek for help from the operator that will assist you in contacting the right person to get the required authorizations. Most of the time the operator is dealing with these, but it’s important to identify these earlier in the planning process.

  • How long?

    Evaluating the duration for which you need the operator is not always easy. It depends on the gear he will use and the experience he has but also sometimes from uncontrolable factors like climate or people in the area. Do you need a 10 photograph project or 10 minutes of broadcast worthy footage?

  • What quality?

    What kind of footage do I need in regard to my project? Is a regular HD camera enough, do I need a 2 axis single operator setup with a gopro? Do I need 4K or maybe even raw cameras (RED, Alexa ?)

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Once you have everything listed, all these informations should be sent to the drone operator which will then be able to provide you with a quotation adapted to your needs.

Don’t overlook the law aspect. It’s normal that a project in a very populated and congested area (ie a city) has a bigger cost than filming in a desertic area. Getting authorizations and finding the right person to or organism to apply for them is very time consuming and the risks for flying in these two different scenarios are not the the same at all.

Law and safety of the people and good on the ground

This topic will vary a lot between different countries and regulation authorities but the importance remains the same. Ensuring that you drone operator has the right authorizations instead of trying to fly illegally is very important. It will first assure you don’t get arrested and prosecuted, which will happen in many countries that have regulations (France is an example), but also will ensure you are dealing with a quality and serious operator. In case of accident (very rare with someone experimented but you never know), authorizations will ensure the insurance contracted by the operator actually works (it is void if authorizations haven’t been taken care of and liability will be onto the operator and yourself in most countries).

We’ll highlight what we know best, how to operate legally in France. If you’re planning to fly commercially in any other country, be sure to contact their embassy who will give you the right contacts to apply for the right authorizations and permits.

Documents you need to get (To work in France)

This paragraph is mainly about the french UAV/Drone regulations.

If you are paying someone to capture the aerial views you need or if you’re planning to use the footage for commercial work, you must work with a professionnal pilot registered at the DGAC (French FAA). The drone operator you pick must be able to provide you with the following documents :

  • Certificate of deposit : Manuel d’Activité Particulière (MAP) : This is the main document compiling all of the informations about the pilot, the UAVs/Drone he has the right to pilot and the places and flight scenarios in which he can use them (S1/S2/S3/S4).
  • Insurance certificate for Drone practice
  • Prefectural Authorization (Delivered by the prefect board, equivalent to a state board in the US) for populated areas flights. On this authorization are specified the date of validity as well as the Drones the operator is authorized to use for populated areas flights. These authorizations must be granted for each and every department of France (there are more than 101) through individual applications so sometime the operator will not have it for the departement you want images in. It can take around 30 days for getting one, sometimes faster and sometimes slower.

Any drone operator should provide you with these documents before starting the job, if he’s reluctant most of the time it’s not a good sign. Try to check on the list of authorized operators provided by the DGAC. Do a CTRL+F search and look for the operator’s company/name, it should be in it. Sometimes it can a few months before the DGAC updates the list, you can call them to be sure if you can’t find it.


Try to pick someone responsive and flexible : he should be able to answer quickly and without hesitation all your questions, being about authorizations, gear or final renderings, and of course being of good advice. You want to be happy with the final product.

Regarding the legal side, it’s most of the time the drone operator who deals with the authorizations, which become part of the quotation. These authorizations are very specific and it’s his job to comply with all of them, you shouldn’t have to worry about them. However, feel free to ask any question about the authorizations needed for the job, the better you’ll understand them the better you’ll understand the specificities of the quotation.

It’s the drone operator who deals with the authorizations

You need to have a strong and trusted professionnal relationship with your drone operator for the job to go down the best way as possible. Again, don’t hesistate to ask him all the questions, you pay for this service as well.

From the quotation to the invoice

Any reliable drone operator should be able to complete these steps before providing you with a quotation :

  • Study the feasability of the project and give you advice : an operator must be able to say no. If he thinks the safety conditions aren’t there and can’t be obtained for the given job, it definitely normal he refuses.
  • Evaluate the legal constraints with the informations you provided him in the project (Type of scenario if relevant, what gear to use, etc…)
  • Studying aeronautical maps and temporary airspace restrictions : This will affect the final price of the quotation among other things
  • Possible post production (Stabilization, color grading, editing…) should be planned ahead
  • Image and video use, along with rights, should be discussed straight ahead and written down in the signed quotation/contract, this is VERY important for both you and the operator. Don’t forget to read the general terms of the contract before signing anything (I know no one does but this time you should).

The gear

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Speak technical !

Even if drones are not the professionnal field you’re the most experimented with, you should always ask the operator what kind of gear he works with and try to get a list of it (if it’s not already in the quotation). This should avoid being disappointed with the resulting images he’s going to provide you with. An operator with professionnal gear should have no problem giving you references of what he’s going to bring on set :

  • The drone itself
  • What kind of gimbal (3 Axis, 2 axis, brand ….)
  • The camera(s) (resolution, flash disk type, remote control, triggering, follow focus…)
  • Video downlinks and screens (size, definition)
  • Backup gear and camera ?

This should help you at least do a quick google search even if you haven’t heard of it before to check footage obtained with it.

References and portfolio

The drone operator or company you are working with should be able to highlight their previous works (most of the time it’s accessible at least in part on their website, recent projects usually can’t be shown before they’ve aired), you should identify to the images. An operator with no references is not necessarily a bad one, but you can’t rely on what he has done before and it will be harder for you to have an absolute trust on their skills.

If the operator is close geographically to you, don’t hesitate to come visit so that he can show you his gear and last jobs.

To conclude, take your time to discuss with several operators, don’t take for granted everything you’re told, check as well. Watch videos, study references, make comparisons, that’s the only way you’ll be sure to be happy with the final product.

prestataire de prise vue aérienne en drone