What You Need to Know About Becoming a Drone Pilot

Over the next 5 years, over 100,000 new drone pilots will be needed. Here are some key takeaways on becoming a drone pilot.
Marcia Wendorf

In the U.S., the need for drone operators, or pilots, has never been higher. Drones are being used by the industrial, film, agricultural, photographic, real estate, insurance, construction, energy, and public safety sectors.

The still images and video taken with a drone have become common within real estate listings. Following damage or a disaster, a drone belonging to an insurance company can assess the damage and take close-up shots of a roof, for example.

Another name for a drone is an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), and it includes both the unmanned aircraft and the equipment needed to control it remotely. An Unmanned Aircraft (UA) is any aircraft operating, or designed to be operated, autonomously, or to be more clear, piloted remotely without anyone on board.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates the need for over 100,000 new unmanned aircraft pilots by 2025. Also, sales of drones are expected to rise from $8.5 billion in 2016 to $12 billion in 2021.

Drone operator classifications

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has three classifications of drone operators:

  • Hobbyist - drones used for recreational purposes
  • Commercial - drones that are flown to generate commercial value, their operation requires a commercial drone license
  • Government - drones that are flown for a governmental entity such as the military, police, and fire departments.

Hobbyists are required to do the following:

  1. If your drone weighs more than .55 lbs. (250 grams), you must register the drone on the FAADroneZone website.
  2. Once on the website, you must sign up for an account, provide personal information, provide a few details about your drone, and pay the $5.00 FAA drone registration fee.
  3. Fly their drone within visual line-of-sight, that means the operator must be able to see the drone at all times.
  4. Only fly the drone within what is known as Class G airspace, never fly it near other aircraft or near emergency response efforts; we describe the different classes of airspace later in this article.
  5. When you receive your unique drone registration number via email, you must mark that number on your drone; for example, you can write it with a permanent marker.


Types of drones

The most common types of drones are:

Multi-rotor drones - the most common of these is the quadcopter which has four rotors that keep the craft balanced and allow it to hover; the more rotors a drone has, the less time it can stay aloft, a quadcopter can typically remain in the air for about half an hour.

Quadcopter DJI Phantom 1
Quadcopter DJI Phantom 1, Source: Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Small drones - these are 20" to 80" (50-200 cm) in length, and they make a great entry point for hobbyists and children; popular choices in this class include the DJI Mavic Pro.

DJI Mavic Pro
DJI Mavic Pro Source: Simon Waldherr/Wikimedia Commons

Microdrones - sized at 1" by 4" (2.5 by 10 cm), these drones carry micro-cameras and they are used by both hobbyists and militaries; for example, the Black Hornet micro drone has been used by the British military to reconnoiter in Afghanistan, can stay aloft for up to 25 minutes, and has a range of up to one mile.

Black Hornet
Black Hornet, Source: Richard Watt/Wikimedia Commons

Tactical drones - such as the Raven, which is used by the U.S. military, it measures 4.5' (about 140 cm) and weighs 4.2 lbs (1900 gr)., these drones typically include GPS and infrared cameras which provide soldiers with accurate pictures even at night.

The Raven
The Raven, Source: USAF/Wikimedia Commons

Reconnaissance drones - also called Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones, they are commonly used by militaries; for example, the Heron, which is designed by Israeli Aerospace Industries is used by the U.S., Canada, Turkey, India, Morocco, and Australia. They are 16' (487 cm) long, weight around 2,200 lbs (about 1 metric ton). cruise at an altitude of 35,000 feet (10 km), and can remain in the air for up to 52 hours.

Reconnaissance drone
Reconnaissance drone, Source: USAF

As for who makes the best drones, the consensus seems to be the Chinese company DJI. DJI's camera stabilization systems are at the forefront of the industry, allowing the user to take dazzling photos and videos. Headquartered in Shenzhen, China, DJI also has offices in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Becoming a commercial drone pilot

To fly a drone commercially in the U.S., you must get a Part 107 Drone License from the FAA. However, those having a Manned Pilot Certificate issued under 14 CFR Part 61, and who have completed a flight review within the last 24 months are exempt.

They will still need to complete the free Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) ALC-451 online training course, which is available on the FAA FAASTeam website.

Following that course, they must complete FAA Form 8710-13 (FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application for a remote pilot certificate), validate their applicant identity, and make an in-person appointment with their local FSDO, an FAA-designated pilot examiner (DPE), an airman certification representative (ACR), or an FAA-certificated flight instructor (CFI) to sign their form.

Government drone pilots must also receive a Part 107 FAA drone license. Government drone pilots are eligible to obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), which grants them permission to operate their drone outside of regular limitations, such as flying at night or operating beyond their visual line of slight.

Steps to becoming a drone pilot

Step 1: obtain an FAA Tracking Number (FTN) by creating an Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) profile before registering for the Aeronautical Knowledge Test.

Step 2: study for the Aeronautical Knowledge Test. There are 696 FAA-approved testing centers across the U.S. While various private schools offer drone training and can provide you with all the drone regulations, the FAA provides a free study guide that contains everything you will need to pass the test. Currently, the test costs $160.

Step 3: once you have completed studying, schedule an appointment with a Knowledge Testing Center that administers initial and recurrent FAA knowledge exams. Make sure to bring a government-issued photo ID to your test. Topics on the test include:

  • Applicable regulations relating to small unmanned aircraft system rating privileges, limitations, and flight operation
  • Airspace classifications and operation requirements, and flight restrictions affecting small unmanned aircraft operation
  • Aviation weather sources and the effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft
  • Small unmanned aircraft loading and performance
  • Emergency procedures
  • Radio communication
  • Airport operations
  • Maintenance and preflight inspection procedures.

Step 4: complete FAA Form 8710-13 for a remote pilot certificate (FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application) using the electronic FAA Integrated Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application system (IACRA). You will need to:

  1. Register using the FAA IACRA system.
  2. Log in with your username and password.
  3. Click on "Start New Application" and 1) Application Type "Pilot", 2) Certifications "Remote Pilot", 3) Other Path Information, 4) Start Application.
  4. Follow the application prompts, and when prompted, enter the 17-digit Knowledge Test Exam ID; it may take up to 48 hours for your knowledge test to be posted within IACRA
  5. Sign the application electronically and submit it for processing.

Step 5: a confirmation email will be sent to you once you have completed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security background check.

Step 6: a permanent Remote Pilot Certificate will be sent to you by mail once all FAA processing is complete. It typically takes 6 to 8 weeks to receive your license, however, for those who need it sooner, a temporary license can be issued in about 10 days.

Step 7: you must have your Remote Pilot Certificate available whenever you fly your drone.

Starting a drone business

If you plan to start a commercial drone business:

  • You may need to set up a limited liability company (LLC), and costs for doing this vary
  • It's a good idea to acquire insurance, companies such as SkyWatch.AI provide insurance for small, predetermined periods
  • You may want to consult an attorney who specializes in drone businesses
  • Sign up with a drone pilot directory, such as Droners.io or Dronebase to promote your drone business.

Classifications of airspace

The Paris Convention implementation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) classifies airspace as classes A through G, however, class F is not used in the U.S.

In the U.S. and Alaska, Class A airspace extends from 18,000 feet (5,500 m) mean sea level (MSL) to flight level (FL) 600, which is approximately 60,000 feet (18,000 m) MSL).

U.S. airspace diagram
U.S. airspace diagram, Source: FAA/Wikimedia Commons

Class A is unique because unlike the altitude measurements used in the other airspace classes, the flight levels in class A airspace are pressure altitudes, based on a standard altimeter setting of 29.92 inches (911.9616 cm) of mercury. Because of that, true altitude depends on atmospheric pressure variations.

All flight operations within class A airspace must be under Air Traffic Control (ATC), and must be operating under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), therefore there are no minimum visibility requirements in this airspace.

Class B airspace surrounds the busiest airports and has the most stringent rules. Pilots operating in class B airspace must have a private pilot's license or meet the requirements in 14 CFR 61.95.

Class B airspace is shaped like an inverted wedding cake, with a series of steps that are several thousand feet in height. Class B airspace begins at the surface, and its upper limit is usually 10,000 feet (3,000 m).

Class C airspace is around airports that have regular commercial passenger jet service of 100 passengers per flight or more. The FAA requires Class C airspace to have a control tower, a radar-controlled approach system, and a minimum number of Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) approaches per year.

Class C airspace reverts to Class D if the approach control is not operating, and it reverts to classes E or G if the tower is closed. Class C airspace extends to 4,000 feet (1,200 m) above the airport surface, and to an area having a radius of 5 nautical miles (9 km) from the airport.

Aircraft entering Class C airspace must establish two-way radio communication with ATC prior to entering the airspace, and the aircraft must be equipped with a radar transponder.

Class D airspace surrounds any airport that has a functioning control tower but doesn't have a scheduled commercial passenger service. Class D airspace is cylindrical and extends from the surface to 2,500 feet (760 m).

Class D airspace reverts to Class E or G during the hours when the control tower is closed. Two-way communication with ATC must be established, but a transponder is not required.

Controlled airspace that is not Class A, B, C or D is defined as Class E airspace, and that makes Class E the most common airspace over the U.S. Class E airspace extends from 1,200 feet (370 m) above ground level (AGL) up to but not including 18,000 feet (5,500 m).

Neither ATC clearance nor radio communication is required for VFR flight in Class E airspace.

Class F is not used in the U.S., while in Canada, Class F is the equivalent of U.S. special use airspace, including restricted and alert areas.

Class G airspace is typically the airspace very near the ground --(1,200 feet (365 mt) or less), beneath class E airspace, and between the Class B through D cylinders around airstrips that have control towers.

There are no entry or clearance requirements for class G airspace, even for IFR operations. Radio communication is not required, VFR visibility requirements are 1 mile (1.6 km) during the day, and 3 miles (5 km) at night for altitudes below 10,000 feet (3,050 m).

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