Last month we posted an article highlighting a few options for pilots looking to rent a drone. Those options vary in terms of geography, speciality and their target market. But they all essentially have the same function. One of the most interesting was Fat Lama, a peer to peer rental service that has a lot of positives.
Read more: The Best Drone Rental Sites
A Closer Look at Fat Lama
The most obvious benefit of Fat Lama is that it’s peer to peer, which means you’ll mainly be renting from other pilots in your local area. In theory this should make renting cheaper, more flexible and convenient. There are a few actual rental companies listed on there, but they seem to be in the minority.
Renting from locals has its positives and negatives. Only only a small number of pilots use their drone on a daily basis. Most of the units sold in the past 12 months are probably sitting, gathering dust as we speak. So it’s a win-win for both sides really.
You get to fly a drone that’s likely used but in good working order, as well as having the flexibility to organise pick up and drop with the owner. The owner gets to make a bit of cash while the drone isn’t otherwise in use.
This makes Fat Lama a good place to go to try before you buy, or if you need something specific for a project or shoot that you’ve got coming up.
A quick disclaimer here. Fat Lama provided DroneLife with credit to rent a drone and review the process. So that’s exactly what we did. Fat Lama has a presence in the US but we trialed it in London. Here’s how it went…
Getting Started on Fat Lama
Getting set up on Fat Lama is pretty easy. You can quickly create an account with an existing social media profile or just your email address. That’s all you need to do in order to browse for items available for rent in your local area.
It’s not all about drones, either. There’s everything on there, from DSLR cameras to bread machines.
Now, being an efficient drone journalist, the aim was to rent a drone that we haven’t reviewed yet, and then write articles for both the drone and the rental process. However, that’s where we ran into the first issue.
The plan was to rent a DJI Mavic Air, the latest drone from the Chinese manufacturer, which has only been out for a matter of days. And we were in luck. Two DJI Mavic Airs were listed in the London area and available to rent.
However, because of how recent the Mavic Air was to market, both owners were reluctant to rent on the day that I wanted. The first was keen to fly for himself that weekend (fair enough), the second was considering selling it instead of renting, due to a lack of interest from potential renters. He also insisted on a two-day minimum rental – something I didn’t think was necessary.
Quickly I was introduced to the main problem with any peer to peer marketplace. Sure, I was searching for a drone that had barely hit the market (there seem to be countless standard Mavic Pros available for example), but the process was hindered by a lack of supply. It was also at the whim of the owner, who had the power to decide either way. This isn’t an issue you’d run into with a well-stocked rental outlet.
Undeterred, I went in search of another drone that I was interested in flying: The Phantom 4 Pro. By this point it was pretty short notice – two days before I wanted to rent. But according to the Fat Lama website, “Over half of rentals are booked and picked up on the same day,” so I didn’t think it would be an issue.
Unfortunately it was too last minute to rent any of the Phantom 4 Pros in my area. Some were actually wrongly posted Phantom 4s, some owners didn’t reply to my message. And one was already booked. Unlucky.
The Rental Process
It’s February in London. We don’t get much sun at the best of times, so I had chosen a small timeframe to fly in and getting one of the drones I wanted through Fat Lama wasn’t working out so well. So instead I started thinking about accessories.
I considered taking one of DJI’s CrystalSky monitors for a test run. But instead I went for DJI Goggles. They get plenty of media coverage and are compatible with my Mavic Pro. Better still, there was a guy on Fat Lama renting his out less than 20 minutes from my place.
The price? £13.74 ($19) per day. Not bad at all.
The rental process is very straightforward. The challenge is finding an owner near enough that’s willing to rent when you want it.
If you haven’t verified your account already, you just need to confirm your identity and put the money for the rental in escrow on Fat Lama.
You have to upload a photo of yourself holding you ID upside down, presumably to dissuade all the eager Photoshoppers out there. And then you wait for your ID to pass the checks – which for me took all of 2 minutes.
All that was left was to arrange a pickup time and place, which turned out to be a nearby underground station.
The Goggles were great, everything went smoothly and a couple of days later we met up again to exchange them back. I’ll be writing up a separate review of them soon.
At this point, it’s good to mention an unexpected benefit of using a peer to peer platform: You get to meet up with like-minded people and have a chat. When you’re renting something drone-related, the exchange is never going to do down like a back-alley drug deal. Instead it’s a chance to talk with someone, however briefly, about what is still a niche hobby.
Pilots can’t help but offer opinions, tips and share their experiences when they meet. It’s all good.
The Network Effect
Any peer to peer service relies heavily on a network effect – the idea that a platform becomes more valuable the more that people use it. At one point, for example, Airbnb probably only had a few listings.
The challenge for peer to peer lending platforms like Fat Lama is to grow to the scale of an Airbnb and increase their network effect. That way there’s a lower chance the supply-side will let you down.
Fat Lama is a relatively new platform, so I can’t fault it for not being able to provide the drones I was looking for. Within a few weeks of the Mavic Air being on the market, I don’t doubt that it’ll be fairly easy to get one to take for a test run.
In fact, if you want to take any half-decent drone for a spin, you won’t be short of options.
The obvious problem with using a peer to peer rental service is that your rental isn’t set in stone until you’ve actually got the item in your hands.
In the case of the first rental I tried to arrange, we had provisionally agreed a day and a pickup point, but after the owner checked the weather, he decided to cancel and fly for himself that day.
The main reason for this was that the Mavic Air had only just come out – he hadn’t even got a chance to fly the new drone himself. So that’s fair enough. But it’s a good example of the risk and inconvenience you’re exposed to when using a peer to peer service instead of a company dedicated to drone rentals.
For that reason, I’d suggest that Fat Lama is a great place to look if you want to try out a new model before you buy, if you need spare accessories for a day flying, or even if you just want to try a drone for the first time.
The Goggles that I rented were in perfect working order, so there were no complaints on that front. But if you have a professional job lined up you might be better off looking for a company that can A.) guarantee a confirmed, set-in-stone booking and B.) regularly makes sure all gear is in good working order.
And then there’s liability. With Fat Lama you’re liable for any damage done to products you rent. Some companies, such as Heliguy, offer drone rentals and include insurance as part of the package, or at least make sure you have coverage before renting anything. Damaging someone else’s drone through a peer to peer service could leave you with a hefty bill if anything goes wrong, which isn’t an ideal position for beginners to be put in.
I asked Fat Lama whether or not there are plans to add insurance to rentals. Currently, people who place products for rent on the platform are covered for damage or loss but renters have full liability.
Good news: it won’t be this way forever. According to a Fat Lama spokesman, the company is currently in talks with underwriters to make renting a drone a completely stress-free experience. “It is in the pipeline to add borrower’s insurance to the package. We intend to be the first fully-insured peer-to-peer drone rental site in the world,” he said.
The final thing to mention is the issue of collection and return. You might get lucky, like I did, and be renting a drone from someone a matter of minutes away. Or you might have to trek across the city. It’s all part of the peer-to-peer bingo. Again, if every second counts and time is money when it comes to flying, established camera and drone rental companies will usually include delivery and collection as part of the fee.
All in all, renting through Fat Lama was a positive process. Sure, I didn’t get the drone I wanted and had to settle for some Goggles instead. But that was mainly down to my own impatience and bad timing. I will definitely use the platform again in the future. In fact, I’m still planning on renting a Mavic Air through Fat Lama and taking it for a spin in the next few weeks.
Why Not List Your Drone?
There’s no doubt that Fat Lama is a convenient way for enthusiasts to try new drones and fly without a huge outlay on a new model.
The platform also seems like a no-brainer for drone pilots looking to make some income on the side from renting out their gear. There are plenty of people out there looking to fly occasionally, for gear for a specific project or just to take a drone out for a test run. Why not list your kit on Fat Lama and see how it works out?