So You Want To Be A Drone Pilot?
You’ll Need To Be Trained, Tested & Licensed To Become A Drone Pilot!
When a tide turns, boy, do things change rapidly! In just a few short years, the FAA has gone from suppressing drone usage to “let’s get some drone pilot regulations in place before someone gets hurt around here!”
To refresh your memory, the change in the FAA’s attitude was due in large part to a 2012 Congressional mandate that the FAA come up with rules to legalize and regulate commercial drone use in the U.S.
As a result, the FAA has not only created new drone regulations, but is now issuing an actual commercial drone license, complete with a knowledge test and an official inclusion into the brotherhood of pilots. (Refer to the latest Federal Aviation Regulations and Aeronautical Information Manual), 14 CFR Part 107, for details.)
The new regulations remove the need for a sport or private pilot’s license and a Section 333 exemption as prerequisites to fly commercial drones in the U.S. Within the first week of the new regulations, 300,000 drones were registered.
Why so many drones? Why now?
Drones are not new. They’ve been around since almost the beginning of manned flight and have been used militarily since World War II. What makes today’s drones so different and so ubiquitous is new technology. The modern drone has been propelled into the limelight by several advances, which have led to their proliferation, these include:
- Lithium batteries powerful enough and light enough to lift their own weight off the ground.
- Drone stabilization attributed to low-cost MEMS accelerometers and gyroscopes developed used in smartphones and tablets.
- Small, lightweight, high-torque drone motors developed within the last decade.
- High-power density switching semiconductors powerful enough to control those motors.
Commercial drone pilot requirements
Like all pilots, commercial drone pilots are responsible for the safe use of their aircraft. For example:
- They must keep drones within the line of sight so it can remain under constant control
- They must fly it no higher than 400 feet above the surface
- They must ensure it is not a danger to anyone or anything on the ground below them or in the air around them.
- They must adhere to airspace rules, as well as privacy rules.
- These rules apply to drones 55 lbs. or less flown for commercial use. If you own a drone of that size, you are now required to register it with the FAA. Failure to do so will result in a hefty fine.
Here are some other important regulations for commercial drone flying:
- Must be flown in Class G airspace
- Must be flown during daylight hours
- Must fly at or below 100 mph
- Must yield right of way to manned aircraft
- Cannot fly over people
- Cannot be flown from a moving vehicle
While becoming a commercial drone pilot is nowhere near as demanding as getting a regular pilot license, it does require you meet the following criteria:
- Must be at least 16 years of age
- Must pass an aeronautical test at an FAA-approved test center (if you have a valid and current pilot’s license you can satisfy this requirement by taking a part 107 exam online)
- Must be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA)
Places to train?
With regulation and testing come schools, test prep aids and, of course, costs and fees. If you’re looking for help passing the Part 107 exam, look no further than the usual aviation study-aid sources such as Gleim and Kings Schools. They have complete reviews and complete syllabuses available.
If you’re looking for flight instruction, there are a number of training companies now offering drone lessons to the public. Dart Drones conducts workshops in numerous states across the country. For several hundred dollars you’ll get some ground school as well as a few hours of practical hands-on flight time. There are also several accredited aviation colleges around the country where drone courses are being offered. However, your should research these carefully as their curriculum is geared towards aircraft sized drones that are much heavier than 55 lb. drones, which will require you earn an Air Transport Pilot’s (ATP) certificate.
Commercial Drone Use Is Heating Up
We’ve all heard that companies like Google and Amazon want to use autonomous drones to make deliveries. One California start-up, Matternet, is already using GPS-directed drones to deliver medical devices and specimens around the world (notice we did not say in the U.S.; this is because the FAA has not yet ruled on autonomous drone usage in the U.S. and current FAA rules demand drones stay within the line of sight of a designated drone pilot at all times.) For the purpose of this post, we will be focusing commercial drones that are flown by a nearby pilot on the ground.
If you’re wondering what kinds of business can be conducted with a drone or what it takes to run a successful drone business, we suggest you pick up a copy of John D. Dean’s “Become a U.S. Commercial Drone Pilot.” It was written before the licensing law went in effect but no doubt it will soon be updated. Mr. Dean’s but informative book covers many drone business issues, from state laws to insurance needs. It lists hardware and software products you’ll need, as well as other accessories essential to running a drone business. It is a good primer for entrepreneurial drone pilots.
What You Can Do With Your Commercial Drone License
The accessory that lifts most drones out of hobby status to business status is on board video. Equipped with a digital still or video camera, your business drone becomes a platform for all kinds of aerial photography. Here are a few sample markets for these services include:
- The real estate industry now relies on aerial footage from drones to help sell expensive suburban properties; drone operations are far less costly than helicopters or fixed wing aircraft.
- Construction firms are using drones to keep a record of progress made on projects; well-edited drone’s footage can also be used to promote the project.
- The agricultural industry is using camera-equipped drones to monitor crops; to check for temperature and humidity changes; to track other atmospheric metrics that impact crops.
- Ranchers use drones to patrol land boarders and keep tabs on herds.
- Drones are used for 2- and 3-dimensional mapping; drones can build aerial surveys and volume measurements much more quickly and efficiently than traditional means of creating surveys and maps.
- Event promoters are using aerial footage for sporting events and concerts
- Engineering firms and utilities use drones to inspect high tension wires and search for breeches after a storm; to inspect pipelines and transmission cables; to inspect towers and bridges
- Media companies are using drone to capture aerial footage of live news stories
These are just some of the ways people are making their commercial drone license work for them. It does not include all of the emergency service, police or fire departments which are now pressing drones into service for their needs.
No doubt, the use of drones will increase with time. Imagination combined with a strong profit motive will continue to create more commercial uses for drones in the U.S. The good news is commercial drones are now looked upon as aircraft and not as a hobby toy. Like all aircraft they need regulating to keep our skies and people below them safe. For those of us who are already pilots, this is the sensible thing to do. For those of us who aren’t pilots, it is the only way to safely embrace the new drone age.