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How to Become a Commercial Drone Pilot (in 7 Easy Steps)

Aerial drone technology is arguably one of the world’s most interesting innovations of the past 10 years.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used for delivering supplies and products, photography and video, structural inspection, land surveying, and facility surveillance – just to name a few.

As the opportunities grow, so do the number of commercial drone pilots ready to take advantage of them; and can you blame them?

Making a career out of flying drones is exciting as those lucky enough to do it get to see the world from an angle most people will never see on their own.

The question is, “how does one become a commercial drone pilot?”

Simply put, a person becomes a commercial drone pilot (in the United States) when they obtain a Part 107 Certification.

This is done by scheduling an appointment at your nearest Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) testing center, taking the Part 107 Initial Knowledge Test, and passing it with a score of 70 percent or higher.

Sounds easy?

Well, a little more goes into it than that, and this article will break down the process of becoming a commercial drone pilot as easily as possible.

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1. Purchase a drone

Understanding what you want to do as a commercial drone pilot will help to dictate what kind of drone will be required for effective workflow.

There are many different varieties of drones, with the most popular being photography and video recording drones from companies like Autel and DJI.

However, if you plan on doing more mapping and inspection work with your drone than any other application, you may be enticed by Skydio’s drone platforms which have first-class automated flight modes, data-gathering, and mapping and inspection solutions. 

No matter what avenue you decide to take, remember that every drone is different, and research into what platforms will best suit your needs will be necessary.

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2. Learn to fly your drone

Flying a drone is not a terribly difficult thing to learn how to do. However, learning to do it well can pose a challenge to even the most dexterous of us.

Many of the existing Ready-to-Fly (RTF) GPS drone platforms like those from Autel, DJI, Skydio, and Parrot have a shallow learning curve as the drones are programmed to hold position using GPS.

This means that even if you put the controller down mid-flight, the drone will hold its spot in the air within inches in any given direction.

They are reliable and very easy to learn from a beginner onward.

Where it becomes difficult to fly RTF GPS drones is doing it smoothly and without a panicked “herky-jerky” feel as you maneuver three-dimensional space with your UAV.

More on that in a moment…

Aside from RTF GPS drones, there are First Person View (FPV)-style drones that require much more manual input from the remote pilot and do not have all the same safety features of their RTF GPS counterparts.

A pilot flying an FPV-style drone is responsible for maintaining altitude and positioning manually and does not typically have access to obstacle avoidance systems or multiple flight modes.

It takes a very steady hand and an understanding of the finer points of remote piloting such as pitch, yaw, roll, and thrust and how all those things play together to become a proficient FPV pilot.

There are academies and flight schools available via brick-and-mortar locations as well as digitally that can help you conquer whatever type of flying you decide to tackle at a fairly reasonable price.

» MORE: Top 9 Online Drone Schools

You may also go the old-fashioned route of trial-and-error in your backyard – whatever feels most comfortable for you.

3. Practice how you intend flying commercially

It’s one thing to learn how to fly your drone, it’s another to know how it needs to be flown.

For instance, if you are flying to collect multimedia such as photos and video for production projects, it will be important to understand how to fly your drone (no matter whether it is RTF GPS or FPV) in a way that lends itself to a cinematic or creative aesthetic.

If you are flying your drone to collect data for the purposes of mapping or structural inspection and analysis, it may not be abundantly necessary to fly your drone smoothly or in a cinematic fashion.

But you will almost certainly be faced with a variety of situations where flying in cramped, high-traffic areas will be necessary to completing your job.

The bottom line is once you learn the basics of flying your drone, home in on flying it well as it relates to its intended purpose.

People pay commercial drone pilots because they have learned to fly at a level that is more professional than the average pilot and the work they produce as a result is high-quality.

If you cannot learn to fly to deliver professional results, you will not be in business for very long.

4. Study Part 107 materials

The FAA recommends that each pilot dedicate approximately 20-hours of study time to prepare for the Part 107 Initial Knowledge Examination.

The material covered in this time should include the following subject matter in order:

  1. Sectional Charts
  2. METARs & TAFs
  3. Operational Rules for Flying Over People and at Night
  4. General Operational Rules for Remote Flight

Sectional charts and METARs and TAFs are becoming largely obsolete for remote pilots with the inception of mobile applications such as Aloft, B4UFly, and OpenSky.

But they do make up a significant portion of the Initial Knowledge Test and are therefore worth studying ahead of your exam date.

The next most important section is understanding the rules for flying over people and at night. As of 2021 the FAA has deemed certain UAVs acceptable for flight over crowds of people under certain conditions.

In the same breath, the FAA also eliminated the need for Part 107 pilots to apply for night-time flight exception waivers by providing a criterion for safely mitigated flights between sunset and sunrise.

The rules you will most often reference while out in the field will be regarding controlled airspace authorizations and general operational rules for remote flight.

These topics also make up a large portion of the subject matter covered during the test, so making sure you understand the rules and their nuances will be crucial to success.

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5. Schedule your Part 107 examination

Now that you have purchased your drone, learned how to fly it, fine-tuned your flight skills, and have studied for the Part 107 Initial Knowledge Test, it’s time to schedule your exam date.

When preparing to schedule your exam, you should first obtain an FAA Tracking Number (FTN) by going to the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) and creating an airman profile prior to registering for an exam date.

Once you have received your FTN, it’s time to schedule your exam appointment with an FAA-approved Knowledge Testing Center. 

6. Take the Part 107 Initial Knowledge Test

Short, sweet, and to-the-point. You have done everything necessary to adequately prepare for obtaining your Part 107 certification.

Now it’s time to take the Part 107 Initial Knowledge Test.

The test contains 60 questions, and you will have 120 minutes (2 hours) to complete it. You must answer at least 70-percent of the test questions correctly to pass the exam.

Cell phones are prohibited during the exam period, and you are generally not permitted to take bathroom breaks while the test is being administered.

Any questions about accessibility or inclusivity exemptions/exceptions should be directed to the FAA testing center you choose ahead of the test date.

Note: You will need to bring a number two pencil, calculator, and a government-issued photo ID to your testing appointment.

7. Begin flying your drone commercially

You did it! You passed the Part 107 Initial Knowledge Test and have earned your Part 107 certificate.

Now what? In a few short weeks you will receive your Part 107 license card in the mail.

You will need to have this on your person any time you conduct a commercial flight operation.

In the meantime, you will be emailed a temporary Part 107 certificate that you should print out and keep with you until your card arrives in the mail.

If you haven’t already, remember to go to the FAA Drone Zone to register your UAV(s) as a Part 107 aircraft.

It’s finally time to fly your drone for direct monetary payments and/or in furtherance of a business or organization.

Now that you are a commercially licensed remote pilot, the sky is the limit (pun intended) on monetizing your hobby.

By following these 7 easy steps, you can quickly become a commercial drone pilot and begin flying your UAV in furtherance of a business.

Remember, flying a drone commercially can only be done after obtaining your Part 107 certification.

Note: Do not attempt to fly a drone commercially until you have passed your Part 107 Initial Knowledge Test.

The Part 107 certification is valid for 24 months at a time.

After 24 months, the remote pilot must go online to FAA.org to take the Part 107 Recurrent Knowledge Test to renew the Part 107 certification for another 24-month period.

FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Test Prep

Peltier has quite the experience, making him qualified to teach about photography and drones in separate courses. He was a part of the U.S. Air Force as an F-15E flight instructor for a decade.

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References:
IACRA – Federal Aviation Administration (link)
FAA-approved Knowledge Testing Center (link)
FAADroneZone (link)
OpenSky (link)
B4UFLY (link)