Let’s face it. Flying a drone is just plain fun. It is almost as fun as actually flying a plane, but a lot safer, and much less expensive a hobby to take up. In the last few years that I have been droning, I have been through several aircraft, traded a few, and crashed some, but I am always improving my fleet, and so far, I have not even come close to spending the amount of money needed to take the lessons to be able to fly in a cockpit.
Everyone knows that to pilot a plane or a copter takes classroom training and air time with an instructor and then you take your written test and flying test. But for drone flying, do you need a license?
You do not need an FAA license to fly a drone, but you do need a certificate. Those flying a drone recreationally need a TRUST certificate, and commercial drone operators need a Part 107 certificate (sometimes referred to as a drone pilot license).
If you really want to be accurate and precise, drone pilots are not licensed, but rather certified. What the FAA has laid out for drone pilots is a certification process. The difference is that a certification is a process that verifies that a person has met a minimum set of criteria of knowledge and that it can be measured by a test.
A license, more accurately, is verification by the FAA that a pilot has the necessary skills and is able to perform that skill, in addition to having an extensive knowledge base.
For myself, being retired but not wanting to form the habit of sitting around the house watching the TV 12 hours a day, or sitting at my computer watching endless videos of stupid things people have done, I decided that I needed a purpose. Something that was fun to do but not just a hobby, but something that I could earn money at, too.
So I launched myself into a study of several widely different endeavors. That lead me into droning and I found out all the rules, regulations, and certificates needed in order to fly a drone. Let’s get into those together and I will show you just how easy it is.
How sUAS (small Unmanned Aircraft System) regulations started
Many years before the FAA was even established there was the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics). This was a group of model airplane hobbyists that built and flew scale model planes, often taking off from makeshift dirt runways (although very short) in local fields and empty lots.
This group felt that because the model airplane field was getting so large, they needed to establish a set of safety guidelines. The success of their safety record was so outstanding that when the FAA came into existence, it was deemed that the AMA guidelines were sufficient for the model airplane field.
Drones start to change the game
However effective the safety guidelines were, the sheer number of hobbyists becoming involved with flying, and the relatively new area of businesses that were forming around drones, it became clear that the FAA was going to have to get involved with regulating the sUAS (small Unmanned Aircraft System) industry.
A new set of enthusiasts were starting to equip model planes and homemade quadcopters with cameras. And new areas of business opportunities with commercial photograph and video production began to emerge.
The need for drone pilot certification
The FAA basically stopped all sUAS activity in the U.S. and stated that no one could fly drones unless they applied for exemptions. It wasn’t until 2014 that the agency actually took advantage of the new laws and approved a few exemptions for drone film crews out of Hollywood.
The original rules required that the drone pilot have a regular pilot’s license and medical certificate, plus be able to document safety procedures, flight experience, and maintenance schedules among other things.
This was extremely oppressive and took days to approve, so a different system was needed, which led to the system we have today.
Classifications of certificates
There are basically two types of certificates available to drone pilots. These are the Recreational certificate and the commercial certificate, referred to as Part 107 throughout the industry. You MUST have one or the other of these certificates in order to fly a drone in what is known as the NAS (National Air Space).
So how do you separate commercial from recreational?
Recreational vs. Commercial certificate (Part 107) distinction
To make this distinction, the FAA ruled that sUAS flights that yield any benefit to any person, at the time of the flight or at any time in the future—regardless of whether or not money actually changes hands, shall be considered commercial operations, and therefore require the Part 107 certificate.
For example, if an agriculture worker flies an sUAS over their own fields to check the status of the crops, that is a commercial operation because those crops will eventually be sold for money. If a search-and-rescue volunteer flies a drone as part of a search for a lost hiker, that is a commercial operation because of the benefit to the hiker.
So, the rule is that to count as a recreational operation, a flight must be made purely for the enjoyment of the activity itself, at the moment it is occurring.
To read more about the difference between commercial and recreational flying, read this article.
Getting a recreational certificate
The recreational certificate is, by far, the easiest of the two certificates to obtain. The FAA has established a set of safety protocols and developed a short course to teach the “rules”.
They have authorized a few online companies to teach and test want-to-be recreational drone pilots in a certification process called TRUST (The Recreational UAS Safety Test). These courses are free and you are issued a digital copy or your certificate when you finish.
The course that I took for the experience and just to get the certificate, was easy and presented in a very understandable manner. I watched the video or read the lesson, then answered a few questions at the end of the section.
If I got a wrong answer to the question, the program gave me the right answer and an explanation and then allowed me to answer the question again. Once I had completed all the lessons, I was certified.
It is highly advisable that you print out the certificate because if you were to be approached by any government representative while operating a drone, you are required to be able to show them that you are in compliance with the rules.
The lessons teach the following points:
- You must be flying for recreational purposes only. Fly for fun, but if there are any flights that are for personal gain, you must have a Part 107.
- You must not interfere with manned aircraft. Any manned aircraft have the “right of way”. Planes, jets, and helicopters are the obvious examples, but even hot air balloons fall into the manned category.
- You must have authorization to use the airspace you are in. Uncontrolled airspace needs no authorization but controlled airspace needs authorization in advance. You can check if you need prior authorization by going online with the FAA’s Drone Zone or LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability) programs.
- You can fly no higher than 400 feet AGL (Above Ground Level). This is a very hard-line rule. Manned aircraft are required to maintain an altitude of no less than 500 feet AGL (except while landing and taking off) so this allows a safety margin, but any miscalculation by either pilot can cause death or severe injury.
- You need to follow CBO (Community Based Organization) guidelines. These are an additional set of safety guides that are not enumerated in the FAA rules but should be adhered to at all times. A full and complete list can be found in any Recreational Flyer course but here are some of the included subjects: Novice Pilot instructions; Distance Offset guidelines; Overflight of People; Autonomous Flight Mode usage; Outdoor FPV Operations; Night Operations.
- You need to maintain VLOS (Visual Line of Sight) at all times. The pilot must be able to see his aircraft while flying. Looking at your screen and glances around your flight area are always permitted, but you need to be able to see your aircraft at all times. Visual Observers can be used as assistants, but they cannot be used as a substitute for the pilot having VLOS.
- You must take the TRUST (The Recreational UAS Safety Test). TRUST is easy to pass and is free for anyone. Read more about TRUST here.
- You must register and display the registration numbers. If your aircraft weighs more than .55 pounds it must have a registration number placed on the outside, so that anyone finding it can easily see the registration number. As a recreational flyer, you can go to the FAA website and for $5 get your registration number. This number will be used for any and all the aircraft used by a recreational flyer.
- You cannot operate in a dangerous manner. This should, of course, be obvious. Don’t endanger people or property by hazardous flying.
As you can see, most of these guidelines are the same as what is required for the Part 107 Certificate, listed below, with one big difference. The Recreational Certificate adds in that the drone pilot must follow CBO guidelines. These are basically the same guidelines that the AMA set out before the FAA was even formed, but were placed in the rules so that extra safety protocols were emphasized.
It would be advisable to get a copy of the CBO safety guidelines and carry them along with your certificate so that if you are approached you can show that you follow the guidelines that you carry with you whenever you fly.
Part 107 commercial certificate
CFR 14 Part 107, the law written by the FAA, established a minimum standard for the qualification of drone pilots. To test your understanding of what you need to know, you must take a 60-question AKT (Airman Knowledge Test).
Taking this test can be very intimidating. You must go to an FAA contracted testing facility run by a contact agency. This test costs $150 when I last checked and requires that you reserve a specific test time with the facility you wish to test at.
My first experience was an eye-opening experience. I reported to the testing office at an airport. I contacted the test proctor in his office and he lead me to the testing room. He checked my pockets and made sure that I did not have any cheat notes or unauthorized items.
The test room was darkened and around the walls of the room were computers placed in partitioned off areas. Just the computer, a work light, and a chair. He gave me the FAA reference book, several sheets of blank paper, and a pencil. The paper and pencil were there for me to doodle if I had spare time, I guess.
The proctor explains the rules and gives you two hours to complete the test, then he goes and sits behind a desk to watch you (and everyone else in the room) to make sure you don’t cheat.
The test covers many different areas of aeronautics.
All the basic rules of drone operations include the following list:
- No operations in excess of 100 miles per hour
- No operations of an aircraft weighing 55 pounds or more
- The aircraft must remain within the pilot’s visual line of sight at all times
- No operations at an altitude higher than 400 feet above ground level
- A pilot must only operate one aircraft at a time
- The sUAS must yield the right of way to all other aircraft
- No operations above persons not directly involved in the flight
- Operations in controlled airspace are permitted with authorization
- Operations in uncontrolled airspace are permitted without authorization
- No flying over moving vehicles.
- No flying while operating a boat or motor vehicle.
But the test covers much more than just the basic rules. The AKT also requires that you know the different airspace classifications. You also need to learn about weather conditions and how to determine the information you need from weather maps and reports. And the AKT has several questions that require you to be able to read navigational charts.
You can find all the information you need online from various FAA websites. They go through test procedures, where you can take the test and how to pay for it. The FAA also has a study guide, but to me, the information was designed more for someone with experience in the aeronautics field.
I found that there are many private companies that have courses for a fee, that go through each step and phase of the AKT. They have sample questions and answers and great video lessons that carefully explain what you need to know. Many of these companies guarantee that if you pass their sample test, you will pass the FAA test, first try, or your money back.
The Part 107 certificate must be renewed every two years. A new process has been implemented within the last couple of years that allows you to renew online for free. On the FAA website are instructions on when and how to accomplish this.
It’s so much better now that we don’t have to pay another $150 every two years, and they provide the study material before you take the test, so it is easy enough.
Advantages of one certificate over the other
So now you are faced with the question of which certificate you want to go for.
The Recreational Certificate is so much easier to obtain. You can go online and take a short course for free, in about half an hour. The course has several lessons laid out in logical order and at the end of each section, you are asked to respond to a few interactive questions. If you get a question wrong, the program explains the correct answer and gives you a chance to answer the question again.
Once you complete all the lessons, you are awarded your certificate. Print it out and always keep the copy with you when you fly. As I said before, at any time any enforcement person asks, you must be able to show them that you meet the minimum standards.
The big advantage to the Recreational Certificate is the simplicity in getting it. However, the huge drawback is that you are limited to flying for fun ONLY. If you fly for commercial purposes in any way, you are in violation, and the fines outlined are quite stiff.
The Part 107 Certificate requires a great deal more investment of your time and money. The testing fees, fees to a training company (if you chose), study time, taking practice tests, etc. But the greatly extended authority is well worth the effort. You never have to worry if what you are doing is within the permission you have been given.
Certifications required for flying in Canada
Canada has a different set of rules and certifications regarding drones. Canada maintains two categories as well but defines them as Basic and Advanced Operations. But this is not determined by whether you fly commercially or for fun. The airspace classification, distance from people, and weight of the drone are what determine which certificate you need.
Canada does have a third distinction. If your drone weighs less than 250 grams you are not required to be registered and the pilots do not have to be certified. The basic safety protocols still apply and action can be taken against you if you fly recklessly, so there is still a level of responsibility involved.
Regulations in Mexico
I found several references from Mexico that state that commercial drone pilots will be required to have a license in the future, but I was not able to find the specifics behind licensing. What I did find was that to fly in Mexico you must be over 18 years old and a citizen of Mexico by birth. You need to show your military release card, have a high school diploma, and be in good health.
Flying overseas (from the U.S.)
Each country has its own regulations, so my advice on this is if you are going to travel outside of your current certification, check with that authority first before you travel. It’s your responsibility to know what the requirements are for pilot certification wherever it is you plan to fly.
There are drone enthusiasts around the world and the numbers are growing daily. Working together and inside the laws of licensing and certification, we can keep the drone industry growing. If drone pilots flaunt the laws, rules, and procedures, government agencies will be forced to bring down heavier laws that will be more difficult to comply with and endanger the future of generations that want to take up drone flying.