How to make big money with drones – Part 1 (Oil Industry)

In part 1 of the How to make big money flying drones series, I want to talk about the oil industry and the various ways you can make money with your drone. I’m going to cover (1) pipeline leak inspections, (2) oil spill detection “environmental”, and (3) emissions monitoring.

For starters, you obviously need a drone, preferably a Phantom 4 or higher. Higher meaning Phantom 4 Pro, Inspire, or Matrice. I lean towards the DJI Matrice because it has more capabilities than the others, including object avoidance, ability to stack multiple batteries (increase flight time), ability to attach flir cameras, as well as ability to increase signal strengths. You can find these drones here at DJI’s website. You can find my recommended cameras for the various inspections at the end of this post.

oil field-drone-inspection-fir camera

Pipeline leak inspections. Traditionally and still, most oil companies use airplanes to fly over long stretches of pipeline to determine if and where there are leaks. Understand: drones cannot compete on 100 mile sections of pipe. However, drones can compete with the airplanes on smaller sections of pipe ~10 miles or less. Note – this 10 mile or less is my personal preference. By all means, feel free to increase this mileage if you’re comfortable in doing so. It’s only a rule of thumb (heuristic).

To perform these inspections you’ll need a flir camera (thermal imaging) which can detect the temperature differences between earth (soil) and the oil (fluid).

Here are some ways to tell if a pipeline is leaking:

  1. Dead grass and vegetation along the path of the pipeline. When flying your drone overhead you’ll notice the area around the pipe looks dead and discolored. This is a prima facie case of a pipe leak.
  2. You smell gas along the pipeline. Again this is a sure fire signal the pipeline is leaking.
  3. You hear a hissing sound. This also signals a leak.


Oil spill inspections (environmental). This one here is dear to my heart and I’ll explain why. Environmental companies are a necessity not only in the oil field but in the energy industry as well. These companies perform field surveys, surveys for right of ways, and active and post construction restoration. A highly adept (and smart) person could easily create an environmental drone company! This poses a serious threat in disrupting these traditional environmental companies that are older and slower moving, not up to date with technology much less drone technology. I’m in the process of starting an environmental drone company as I write this post.

Long story short – you can use your drone and a flir camera or other camera to fly over oil spills to measure and quantify the severity of the oil spill while determining the direction the spill is moving so active steps can be taken to contain the spill.

Emissions monitoring. In January 2016, the EPA mandated that all oil companies provide emissions testing. At a high level, you’ll fly your drone, fitted with a flir camera or other camera over company sites and properties, collecting data and testing for emissions. I suggest you read about the various rules and how the pertain to oil companies specifically here. There are two ways to play this – (1) get government contract to test for emissions, or (2) contract directly with the oil companies to provide emissions testing. Understand: oil companies must do this testing. There is no middle ground. It is a government requirement. You come in and solve their requirement problem cheaply and efficiently with your drone. Rinse hands and repeat.


Recommended equipment for performing the above drone inspections:


Cameras: Flir A65 / Nikon D800

21 thoughts on “How to make big money with drones – Part 1 (Oil Industry)

  1. Hey James,

    Great article, I love how straight forward things are written. When searching for oil companies, what type of search terms do you find best? So far, I’ve used midstream, upstream, and downstream and had a little success. Any other suggestions?


        1. So here are a couple of places you could start digging:

          1. Peterson Energy Operating; and
          2. Great Western Oil and Gas

          I did a google search for places near you and I’d start with these two. Visit with them, develop a relationship, and take it from there. You’ll want to have business cards prior to meeting in person with them.

  2. Hi James, thank you for the great info. What is your advice if I want to get into doing these type of inspections but kinda want to test the market before investing the capital into an upgraded drone and camera? Is your experience that the work is definitely out there and just go for it or would it be wise to test it a bit and if so how would you go about doing that?

    1. Sure, I mean the cautious approach would be to try and land a new construction type project (which you can read about in some other posts of mine) or try selling your services to millionaires selling their home “for sale by owner”. Just be ready to buy a drone immediately.

  3. Hello James,

    I have a Mavic Pro. I know to get serious I will have to eventually purchase a Matrice with the FLIR. How do I make money with the Mavic Pro quickly to be able to upgrade and get into the inspection arena?

  4. Hey James,

    I saw your youtube video which brought me here. I have been debating whether to get into the drone industry or not. I have extensive experience in videography and have flown hobby grade drones for years. I was thinking about getting the Phantom 3 advanced because thats all I can afford now… Would it be better to wait a few more months to save for a 3 pro? Also I live in the Southern CA area and wanted to know of some good companies to contact… In my area there are lots of windmills which I believe may be a good target to focus on. Your thoughts?

  5. Hi James, I have a 3DR solo and GoPro hero 4 black, could I use this, or do I need a better camera or even a thermal camera? Thanks James, great article!

  6. Hey my friend love your information any suggestions on how to get started in the Atlanta and the surrounding ga market. Keep up the great work you are doing!!

  7. I came across your site and need to clear up something about “FLIR” cameras used for detection of hydrocarbons. The Flir 300 series and Opgal EyeCGas are what is called OGI or optical gas imaging cameras. The price for these START at $85K and run up to $135K. Weight is 1+kilo which takes the hobby type UAV’s out of the picture. There is one company which is marketing itself as having a drone capable of lifting and deploying the Flir GF320. I have seen this UAV in action and for the demo had a dummy camera.
    The standard hobby camera can deploy a infrared spectrum camera as the technology is getting better and smaller but using these sensors for hydrocarbon detection will not work. PergamUSA has a detector for methane detection that can be deployed using the larger hobby UAV’s called the LMM Mini. This is a excellent detector as it has Google Earth traceability but the range is limited to 30m(100f).

  8. I am in the Mobile Alabama area. I used to work in the oilfield delivering goods to land based rigs.

    There are a lot of old pipelines and capped wells from the 70 and 80’s in this area.
    Where would I start? A pumping station or downstream names of companies?


  9. James, I enjoyed this article. I work for an oil company, and I am an inspector. You have me thinking. I think I’ll start small and learn how to fly a drone, and use one on a tank job. I can definitely see the possibilities. Where I work, it’s cold and we have requirements for intrinsically safe. I hope there are some models that fit into these requirements.

  10. Super interesting! We’ve been in the Quality Inspection business for 19 years, specializing in the auto industry. Our average annual sales are $5M, and we’ve been looking for ways to insulate our business against the ups and downs of the auto sector, changing technologies, etc. I see so much potential with this business model, both as a single entity with company-owned regionalized operations (our existing business model) and/or a franchise model. Exciting potential! What business model(s) are you considering for your new environmental drone company venture?

  11. This is awesome, I went through a class to pilot drones and didn’t realize the number of rules are so extraordinarily high, you have to call certain people to fly it, make sure it’s ok to do so in certain area, trees/roads/people/animals/ are you near an airport, radio communication… I can see why this is a fruitful industry because a lot of people might not want to deal with that but I am curious how you do this in the states, do you go through all the regulation rules, did you train yourself to fly a drone for months and months before buying a DJI type of drone?

    the charge if you get caught flying a drone is so high it kind makes me wonder how so much youtube/instagram videos of it are just freely flown around in cities, any tips of who i could contact in canada for job or advice where to look over here?

    thanks so much love your stuff.

  12. James,
    Any oil (or other) company suggestions for the Maryland/ DC area? I am also a private pilot so I could go bigger (aircraft) or longer range, if necessary.
    Many Thanks! Keep up the great work!

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