Commercial Drone License and Certification Guide
With a new wave of professionals now using unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAVs or drones) for commercial aerial photography, the FAA has finalized regulations which all pilots must follow to receive their drone license. Along with a list of rules regarding the flight of drones (which all pilots, commercial or hobbyist, must abide by), commercial pilots must become certified and register their drone(s). In June of last year the FAA released Part 107 which details the drone certification process and flight guidelines. Now, these regulations are in full effect. Failure to do so can result in heavy fines and at worst, jail time.
If you are a commercial drone pilot, or someone aspiring to generate income via aerial photography or drone flying, this quick guide will explain how you can become a certified pilot and receive your drone license. It will also describe the rules instituted by the FAA. Since drones are becoming more popular and the industry is evolving rapidly, it is important that all pilots abide by FAA regulations for drone piloting. It is more important now than ever to create a community that enforces and preaches drone safety, responsibility, and professionalism.
What is required of a pilot to become certified? The following summarizes the steps to take for drone certification.
- All pilots are required to pass an aeronautical knowledge test at one of the FAA-approved knowledge testing centers in the United States. There are nearly 700 testing centers in the fifty states. The test requires an adequate amount of preparation and studying.
- All pilots must be vetted by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration).
- All pilots must obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate specific to an sUAV (small unmanned aerial vehicle –the FAA term for drone).
- Along with the initial aeronautical knowledge test a certified pilot passed to become certified, the pilot must pass this test every two year for renewal of the certification.
- All pilots must be at least 16 years of age to acquire a certification.
- All pilots must be willing to make their drones and any flight-logs, documents or records required by the FAA available for testing, inspection, and review. This will not always occur, but if the FAA requests said pilot to hand over their sUAV and all paperwork accompanying, they must be ready to do so.
- All pilots are required to report accidents within 10 days of any flight which resulted in injury or property damage of over $500. These reports must be submitted directly to the FAA.
- All pilots are required to administer a preflight inspection of the sUAV before operating it in order to ensure the drone is safe and ready to be operated.
- All pilots must ensure that the sUAV complies with the existing FAA requirements before operating the drone.
While this summary of the Part 107 requirements is thorough, if you want to be a certified drone pilot it is best you read the entirety of Part 107 yourself. If a pilot wishes to operate outside of the parameters set by the FAA regulation (night flying, flying without visual-line-of-sight, flying in dangerous terrain or for search & rescue purposes, etc.) additional paperwork and processes will follow. If you want to become a certified pilot and earn your drone license, be sure to know the conditions in their entirety before applying for your certification and beginning the process. Otherwise there is a chance an element to the process foreign to you will thwart your application and deny you a certification.
What sort of preparation is needed to pass the written aeronautical test? As with most professional tests, there are numerous ways the candidate can prepare for the test. There are private companies which have developed training material (in-person and webinar sessions, practice tests, guide-through, etc.) which an aspiring drone pilot can purchase. Although not overly expensive, these practice courses range from $99-$800. Our favorite course is the Drone Launch Academy.
- Drone Launch Academy: At only $99, and created by highly-trained professional pilots, Drone Launch Academy offers a Part 107 training course unmatched by any others
In addition, there are free alternatives which can prepare you for the test. One of these free courses is available through the FAA itself. Once the aeronautical test was finalized, the FAA also released the training course. Although the course was designed for Part 61 pilot certificate holders, the practice course can be taken by anyone (licensed or not) who wishes to prepare for the test.
It says specifically on the FAA’s website: “Applicants for a part 107 remote pilot certificate who do not hold a part 61 pilot certificate (or part 61 pilot certificate holders without a current flight review) may incorporate this training into their self-study curriculum to help prepare for the FAA Unmanned Aircraft General (UAG) Knowledge Test.’
The method the pilot candidate uses to prepare for the aeronautical test is up to the individual. It important to note, however, that the test does require a fair amount of studying. The FAA takes the testing process seriously. Do not treat the test like a traffic school crash course.
What should a pilot expect in the Part 107 written drone test? Similar to standardized testing, it is an objective multiple choice test that contains 60 questions. The candidate must score over 70% to pass the test and gain eligibility for your certification. Below is a concise summary:
- The test form is objective, multiple choice (three potential answers per question: A, B, and C)
- There are 60 questions total in the test.
- Each test question remains independent of every other question, that is, a correct response to one does not depend upon or influence the correct response to another.
- Although most of the questions are written-form, some will require visual references & models (think airspace maps, charts, etc.)
- The minimum score of 70% is required to pass.
- The test must be completed within a two hour period.
If the proper research is done, candidates will find that most who have completed the test will report it is not absurdly difficult, yet they would by no means have passed without the proper training.
What if a pilot has/is waiting for an FAA Section 333 Exemption? A lot of these answers can be read in full on the FAA’s website. However, if you already have a Section 333 exemption, you’re allowed to continue with your operations within the 2 year license window. That does not mean you cannot partake in Part 107’s certification process (you might want to –since Part 107 is a lot less limiting). Any pilot, who submitted an application for a Section 333 Exemption and is still waiting for a response, is among many suffering the same fate.
In what circumstance is obtaining a drone certification absolutely necessary? We touched on this in the beginning of the article, but to lay it out in simple words, if you are using your drone strictly for fun, then the answer is no. Recreational use does not require a Part 107 certification nor any form of certification for that matter. Recreational drone users must simply abide by the safety regulations set forth by the FAA (and register their drones if applicable). Again, you can read the full list of safety guidelines here, but we will summarize a few of them for you.
- sUAVs must be flown strictly in the daylight
- sUAVs cannot fly above 400 feet
- sUAVs must be flown by a direct line-of-sight you must be physically able to see your drone; livestreaming via the first-person-view doesn’t count)
- sUAVs cannot be flow in national parks
- sUAVs cannot fly directly over people
- sUAVs must yield to other aircraft
- sUAVs cannot be over 55lbs
…and lots more: we advise you to read the regulations.
Another regulation to add here, is drone registration. If your drone weighs over .55lbs, then you will need to register the drone(s) with the FAA. However, this process is simple and free.
Now, if you are a commercial drone pilot (anyone using a drone to generate income or for ‘economic benefit’), then it is absolutely required that you obtain your drone certification/drone license. Part 107 regulates commercial sUAV operations. If a government entity or organization desires to fly sUAVs, there are two ways accomplish this:
- Adhere to Part 107, exactly what we have been addressing in this article. This means adhering to all aircraft and pilot requirements.
- Government organizations and entities have the power to obtain COA (Certificate of Waiver or Authorization) which permits nationwide flying in Class G airspaces with a cap at 400 feet, self-certification of the respective pilot, and the ability to obtain emergency COAs under special circumstances.
Who are today’s certified drone pilots? As you probably know, the rise of drones brought job-creation across multiple industries. Cinematographers and photographers alike are using drones as utilities for their business endeavors. Agricultural companies are hiring pilots to use drones for mapping. Scientists and researchers are doing the same –except they are asking pilots to use drones to venture into areas deemed unsafe for manned travel.
Among these certified pilots, the vast majority come from film (especially with real-estate photography). California and Florida have the most certified pilots. Interestingly most certified pilots are running DJI machines.
Do aspiring drone pilots require a pilot license? Short answer, no. However, when the traditional Section 333 was the main form of the drone certification process, then the answer was yes. Before, it was required the applicants have a ‘manned’ aircraft pilot license. In fact, the vast majority of commercial drone pilots are not actual pilots, especially now that the consumer drone market is booming.
If a pilot has an existing pilot license, he is not required to take the Part 107 test. The pilot license covers the drone license. He can complete a free online training course named Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems ALC-451. This course is available on the FAA website. Once the course is a completed, the pilot then completes FAA Form 8710-13, certifies his identity, and schedules an appointment with an FSDO, a DPE, an ACR, or a CFI to sign his form. If you are someone who already has a pilot license, you will know those acronyms. If not, they do not pertain to you.
To end our drone certification guide: know there is no medical exam required when obtaining a certification and that it only costs $5 for a commercial sUAS certification number. However, to take the required test, test centers charge $150. There are no other costs unless you take a training course. Once the test is passed and the application is processed, a temporary certification is issued in ten business days, and the permanent once comes within 4-8 weeks.
Obtaining a drone pilot certification as a commercial-user is a straightforward process. The FAA has taken strides to simplify the process and make it possible for motivated people to obtain their licenses. If you are going to use your drone for commercial purposes, you must obtain your drone license.