So you’re flying a drone, but it’s unclear whether your use-case is considered ‘hobby’ or ‘commercial.’
Perhaps you’re using a drone as a volunteer to take pictures for a non-profit. Maybe you’re in an FPV competition, and there are prices involved, but not necessarily cash. Or what if you’re taking the pictures for free, but someone else will profit from them, such as taking photos of a friend’s house that they will end up putting in a real estate advertisement?
Do you need a license?
I get a LOT of questions from people who walk the “grey area” line about whether they need a Remote Pilot Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, under Part 107.
For starters, everyone flying a drone that weighs 0.55 lbs or more needs to have a certification of some sort. The certification you need depends on your type of flight. Commercial certification is significantly harder (though still not ultra-difficult) to obtain than recreational certification.
If you’re flying for hobby purposes
All drone operators — regardless of whether you’re flying for commercial or hobby purposes — need to pass a test in order to legally fly most drones in the United States. Formally referred to as the Recreational Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety Test (also known. as TRUST), the test launched in June 2021.
The test may be taken online through any of the FAA’s approved partner organizations.
If you’re flying for business purposes
The FAA clearly states that anyone who is flying a drone for business purposes needs to have a Remote Pilot Certificate, which requires passing a test.
If you’re not sure if it’s business or hobby
The thing that is less clear? What really dictates a “business purpose.” Many drone flights, such as those done as a volunteer or for compensation that isn’t in the form of money, fall into a grey area, and many wonder if they really need to have a license.
“Using a sUAS to take photographs for your own personal use would be considered recreational,” according to the FAA’s website. “Using the same device to take photographs or videos for compensation or sale to another individual would be considered a commercial operation.”
But is receiving a trophy or free drone for winning an FPV race considered compensation? Is a non-profit using photos that were donated to them still considered commercial? There are lots of grey areas here.
Let me preface this by saying the information below is NOT legal advice. Please contact an attorney to get legal advice — but I can weigh in.
Considering you need to have a certification of some sort, you might as well go all out for that Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate anyway. Passing this test is your first entry into U.S. airspace — the safest airspace in the world. Plus, many insurance providers require a Part 107 license, and often companies won’t hire you to do a drone job for them if you are unlicensed.
By studying for the test, you’ll learn valuable information about airport operations and weather, and that knowledge is power! And it feels awesome to have that certificate proving you have substantial knowledge of our airspace.
Taking the test requires some effort, but is not too onerous, even for people with zero prior knowledge about flying. I recommend taking an online study course, leaving a couple weeks to study before taking your test. Here are my recommendations for study courses:
- Drone Pilot Ground School offers a fantastic online training course with practice tests and repeatable videos (this is actually the course I used…and I passed on my first try!)
- UAV Ground School: Gold Seal’s online Part 107 course is one of the few study courses that is actually FAA approved. Use promo code DRONEGIRL to save $25 and take that price down to just $174.
- Drone Launch Academy: this is another online training course with repeatable videos and study guides. Use DRONEGIRL50 or this link to get $50 off!
Secondly, I will say (and this is NOT permission to knowingly break any laws), that — particularly if your drone use case falls in the grey area of commercial use — it does not appear that the FAA is putting a lot of resources into prosecuting people who fly without a license.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, in January 2018 I obtained all of the documentation of the FAA punishing drone pilots for operating a drone business without a license.
So far, the FAA has caught and punished only one drone pilot. His punishment? A warning notice.
The FAA also said that its main goal right now is to educate, not punish violators, since there is still a lack of public knowledge (and a lot of grey area) about how to legally fly drones. However, keep in mind their stance on educating over enforcement could change at any time.
Tldr: get your license anyway, it’s worth it! But (and this is NOT legal advice or permission), I wouldn’t stress about not having a license if you are operating drones in one of those grey areas.