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Is a Drone Always Considered an Aircraft?

When it comes to drones and registration, many people new to drones are surprised to learn that drones are actually classified as aircraft and as such fall under the jurisdiction of the FAA. But is this always the case, and what are the exceptions? This article aims to provide a definite answer to this question. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the body that enacts federal aviation regulations, considers drones to be aircraft and refers to them as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). According to the FAA, an aircraft is “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate or fly in the air.” 

Since a drone is invented, used, and designed to navigate in the air, it meets the FAA’s definition of an aircraft. You can check this document to learn more about what the FAA considers an aircraft. 

In the following paragraphs, we’ll be talking more in detail about drones being classified as aircraft, exceptions to this classification, and the implication of this classification for drone owners. So stay tuned. 

Why are drones classified as aircraft?

Drones are considered aircraft because of the FAA’s definition of an aircraft. For a complete understanding of how drones are defined, you need to understand the following terms. 

Aircraft refers to any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate or fly in the air.

Unmanned aircraft (UA) refers to aircraft that are designed to operate anonymously without a pilot on board. This means an unmanned aircraft is controlled or piloted remotely. 

Unmanned aircraft system (UAS) refers to both the unmanned aircraft and the equipment a pilot (not onboard) will use to fly or control it remotely. Note that the control system may be controlled autonomously or by humans on the ground, on a ship, on another airborne system. 

While drones are generally considered to be unmanned aircraft, the truth is that not all unmanned aircraft are drones. Model airplanes are an example of unmanned aircraft that are not drones. Having been around for over a hundred years and used to test aircraft design theories, model airplanes may be small-scale replicas of actual airplanes or original designs made by enthusiasts for sports or competitive activities. 

Model airplanes fall in the ‘unmanned aircraft’ definition since it is remotely controlled without an onboard pilot. However, there is a difference between how a drone and a model aircraft is controlled. Drones are capable of flying autonomously or controlled by humans while model airplanes are always man-controlled. Also, drones are more maneuverable and more sophisticated as they are capable of carrying varying loads and cameras. Drones also have wider applications across various industries.

As you can see, you can’t just refer to any unmanned aircraft as drones. Some unmanned aircraft fall within the scope of the definition of a drone while others are clearly outside it. 

Are there any exceptions to drones being aircraft?

If we’re talking about the broader definition of a drone as a remote-controlled vehicle, this could include underwater vehicles or even terrestrial vehicles. In the broadest definition, drones are any vehicle that is remotely or autonomously controlled. So in that sense, not all drones are aircraft. 

But if we’re talking about the flying type of drones, there is no exception to drones being aircraft. If it was designed to fly and navigate in the air, that type of drone will always be considered an aircraft by the FAA. 

What does it mean for you that your drone is an aircraft?

The implication of drones being classified as an aircraft means that if you are flying a drone, you have to follow the FAA’s stipulated regulations that apply to the operation of all aircraft. This includes whether they are manned or unmanned, and irrespective of the altitude you are operating the aircraft. 

As a drone owner, you, therefore, have to be familiar with the FAA’s regulations and religiously follow them. One such regulation prohibits the operation of any aircraft in a manner that endangers life or property. The FAA also has the authority to pursue legal enforcement action against persons operating aircraft, manned or unmanned, in a careless or reckless manner that endangers life and property. 

It’s important for you to be aware that state and local governments may also come up with their own guidelines as to the operations of UAS. And this means you must be aware of the regulations in your area to avoid breaching regulations regarding trespassing, assault, and injury to persons or property. 

For example, the State of Alaska has placed a limit on drone operations by law enforcement. They’ve done this by stipulating how and whether they can save images and video captured by drone.

The state of Arizona has more robust regulations about drone operations which include the following:

  • Drones are not allowed to interfere with manned aircraft (airplanes), firefighters, or police.
  • It will be considered ‘Disorderly Conduct’ to fly drones in what is considered “dangerous proximity” to a person or property. The aim here is to protect the privacy of people. 
  • Drones must stay a minimum of 500 feet horizontally or 250 feet vertically clear of any “critical facility.” A critical facility includes but is not limited to the following: hospitals, courthouses, military installations, power plants, water treatment, and oil and gas facilities. 
  • Any city or town in Arizona with more than one park must permit the usage of drones in at least one of those parks.
  • Cities and towns in Arizona may not craft their own drone laws but must adhere to the state laws.

There are other regulations by other states in the United States and countries around the world. Be sure to know the local regulations guiding the use of drones where you live. 

FAA requirements for drone pilots

The requirements for becoming a drone pilot depend on whether you are using your drone for recreational or commercial use. If you are using your drone for commercial use, you need to obtain a license from the FAA before you can fly your drone. However, if you are a recreational flyer, you don’t need a license. 

A recreational pilot is anyone that flies drones “strictly for recreational purposes” while commercial pilots fly drones for construction, journalism, non-profit work, and any other activity that isn’t about fun or recreation. 

The requirements for recreational and commercial drone pilots are different and will be discussed below.

FAA requirements for recreational pilots

FAA stipulates the requirements for recreational pilots on its website under Recreational Flyers & Modeler Community-Based Organizations. And the regulations for recreational flyers include: 

1. You must fly solely for recreational purposes. 

2. You must take The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) and carry proof that you passed the test. The aim of TRUST is to educate recreational drone flyers on important safety and regulatory information. This means you’ll be aware of all safety precautions and regulations. You must pass TRUST before you fly!

3. You have to register your drone with the FAA and display your registration number on the exterior of your drone where it can be seen upon visual examination of your aircraft. 

4. It’s important you follow safety regulations stipulated by an FAA-recognized Community Based Organization (CBO). The FAA stated that while it hasn’t yet begun officially recognizing CBOs, recreational drone pilots are encouraged to follow guidelines of existing aeromodelling organizations like AMA.

5. You must fly within visual line of sight. This means you must have eyes on your drone at all times or use a visual observer.

6. All drones exceeding 0.55 lbs and under 55 lbs must be registered. 

7. You must always fly in Class G airspace which is the air space where the FAA doesn’t control manned aircraft. To fly outside class G airspace – Class B, C, D, or E – which are controlled airspace (airspace surrounding airports), you have to apply for an airspace authorization.  

8. You are forbidden from flying near emergency response efforts.

9. You must not fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

10. Should you violate any of the above rules, you are subject to FAA enforcement action. 

FAA requirements for commercial pilots

If you intend to use a drone for commercial purposes, then the FAA’s requirements that apply to you can be found under the FAA’s Part 107 Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule. Below is an overview of this list of rules:

1. Unlike recreational pilots, commercial pilots need a Remote Pilot Certificate issued by the FAA in order to fly commercially.

2. Commercial pilots must also register ANY drone weighing less than 55 pounds (payload included) with the FAA. 

3. To become a commercial drone pilot, you must be at least 16 years old, capable of speaking, writing, reading, and understanding English. Also, you must be in the proper physical and mental condition required to operate a drone (right state of health and mind).

4. You must always fly in a Class G airspace. 

5. Your drone must always be in your line of sight. 

6. You must fly at or below 400 feet. 

7. If you intend to fly at night or in low-light situations, you must use anti-collision lighting for safety purposes. 

8. You must fly at or under 100 mph and yield right of way to manned aircraft.

9. Remote pilot certificate holders must complete an online recurrent training every 24 calendar months to maintain aeronautical knowledge recency. 

The exception to the Part 107 exam rule

There is an exception in the Part 107 rule that allows licensed manned aircraft pilots to skip the training course or the Part 107 exam. This is because licensed manned aircraft pilots already have knowledge of the use and safety precautions of manned aircraft, and these also apply to unmanned aircraft. 

However, licensed manned aircraft pilots must still complete a free online training course called “Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) ALC-451”. This free training course can be found on the FAA FAASTeam website. 

Completing this course isn’t the end as licensed manned aircraft pilots will then have to complete the FAA Form 8710-13 (FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application for a remote pilot certificate). 

After completing this form, you still need to validate your applicant identity by having either an FAA-certificated flight instructor (CFI), an airman certification representative (ACR), an FAA-designated pilot examiner (DPE), or a local FSDO sign the form. You’ll have to schedule an in-person appointment with any of them to sign your form. 

Keeping your remote pilot certificate current

After obtaining your Remote Pilot license, you must keep your license current by doing the following:

1. Your drone registration is due every 36 months and you must renew your registration before it expires. Also, you must have your registration card with you at all times when flying. 

2. Your license must be kept up to date by completing an online training course every two years through the FAA. This is to keep your knowledge of aircraft safety fresh and current. 

3. You must provide your drone upon request by the FAA for inspection or testing. The FAA may also at any time request for the necessary documents (registration document or license) supporting the operation of your aircraft. 

4. You are required to report any accident involving your drone that results in injury or property damage exceeding $500 to the FAA within 10 days of the accident’s occurrence. 

5. Carry out preflight diagnostics on your aircraft and control station systems to ensure your drone is safe for operation. 

How long does it take to get an FAA drone license?

You’ll be happy to hear the process of becoming a certified FAA drone pilot is not as rigorous or time-consuming as many people think. Since you have to pass the FAA’s test, the most important thing is to study well for the tests. 

There is no shortage of materials that can help you get ready for the Part 107 test required for the Remote Pilot Certificate. There are apps that provide practice questions at a small fee and several workbooks on Amazon that can help you get ready. Online courses specifically designed to help pilots pass the Part 107 tests are also available.

You’ll also find a free study guide on the FAA website as well as YouTube videos made by people that have taken and passed the test. As per reports by people that have passed the test, you’ll need to put in between 15 – 20 hours to get ready for the test. 

Then there’s the time it takes to schedule the test at a testing center, and then you need to submit your paperwork to apply for the actual license. The whole process of studying, taking the test, and waiting for your official clearance could take from 4-8 weeks. 

What can you do with a drone license?

As we stated at the beginning of this article, there’s a growing rise in the interest in drones across many industries. One of the most recognizable opportunities for a licensed drone pilot is real estate where there is a constant need for both still photos and videos of properties for sale. 

There are also opportunities in agriculture as drones are now been deployed on farms to monitor activities. Construction, filmmaking, agriculture, and public safety are other industries for a licensed drone pilot. 

For more ideas on what to do with a drone pilot’s license, check out our article on “What Can You Do With a Part 107 License?” or “How to Make Money with a Drone”