Getting Started with Drones Part 3: Flying drones commercially? How to get a drone pilot license
Missed Part 2? Read more about whether you can legally fly your drone in a specific area right here.
Do you intend to make money off your drone, either directly or indirectly?
Perhaps you’re selling the videos you take of homes to a real estate agent. Maybe you’re a farmer using drones to gather agricultural data. Maybe you post your videos to YouTube for ad revenue.
No matter what your “drone business” is, if you’re using drones for any source of income stream, you must hold a Remote Pilot Certificate, which is essentially a commercial drone pilot license.
You can get that by passing a written test — similar to the permit test you took when you were 15 before getting a driver’s license.
Under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107, anyone wanting to operate a drone commercially needs to obtain a drone pilot license, formerly referred to as a “remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating.” In order to get that, you will need to pass an in-person written exam., which many people refer to as the “Part 107 test.”
The test, which is a set of 60 multiple choice questions with a single correct response for each one, can be taken at one of the 696 testing centers in the United States.
How (and where) can I take the Part 107 test?
Here’s a list of locations where you can take the aeronautical knowledge test. Applicants need to schedule the testing appointment in advance and bring a government-issued photo ID. Most test centers charge a fee of $150 to take the test.
I created an entire blog post and video explaining what my test experience was like, which you can see here.
How do I study for this Part 107 test?
Unless you already have significant airspace knowledge, the test isn’t going to be easy without having done some work in studying (and possibly taking a full informational course).
- See also: Frequently asked questions about taking the Part 107 test
- See also: Need to renew your drone pilot license? FAA announces recertification process details for commercial pilots
So how are you studying? A good friend of mine told me, “I’m going to just study the night before — college style.” Wait, what?! No! Don’t do that!
It’s important that you know the information not to simply pass, but to really know the airspace so you can be a safe pilot. If you’re like me and struggle to absorb information simply by reading, and prefer to take a course — in-person or online — then here’s how I recommend you study for the Part 107 test.
Drone Pilot Ground School:
This is an online test prep course for commercial drone pilots, led by Alan Perlman.
At the end of each lecture you’ll get a 10-question practice quiz, plus a 25 question quiz at the end of each module AND 5 full-length practice tests.
The course has a clean, simple interface — I watched it on my subway rides to work and while on the stair-master at the gym!
Time needed to complete: 10-15 hours
Cost: $299 ($249 with coupon code DroneGirl50)
PLUS: Use Coupon Code DroneGirl50 to get $50 off your Drone Pilot Ground School purchase!
Drone Launch Academy:
This online, self-paced course is taught by instructors with more than 75 years of combined experience in aviation. The course comes with 1 year of unlimited access.
Time needed to complete: 10-15 hours
Cost: $199 ($149 with coupon code DroneGirl50)
PLUS: Use Coupon Code DroneGirl50 to get $50 off your Drone Launch Academy purchase!
While DARTdrones offers a $200, online Part 107 Test Prep Course that’s pretty similar to the others, the key differentiator is the DARTdrones Part 107 Test Prep Live Virtual Course. You get all the benefits of an in-person course — the ability to ask the instructor on-the-spot questions with instant responses, more customization and higher engagement. But you get the benefits of an at-home training course: no commute, you can stay on your couch, and you don’t have to wear pants.
At $375, it’s pricier than the other picks, but it can be worth it for that personalized attention. And yes, that $375 also includes access to DARTdrones’ full online Part 107 Test Prep Course, which on its own costs $200.
Cost: $375 for the live, virtual course or $200 for the standalone course.
How do I get my drone pilot license if I already have a manned pilot’s license?
For people who already hold a pilot certificate issued under 14 CFR part 61, You simply need to complete the FAA’s online course, which will take you about two hours to complete. Note that you must have completed a flight review within the previous 24 months. Get more information on that process here.
The course is free, and anyone can access it, even if they do not have an existing drone pilot license. The course covers topics that manned pilots wouldn’t necessarily know, such as recommended drone maintenance procedures, effects of weather on drones and emergency procedures.
Once you complete the two-hour online program, you’ll receive a course completion certificate. From there, you can register in the FAA’s IACRA system as an “applicant,” providing your existing pilot’s license information in the application. Your FAA-issued permanent certificate will arrive in the mail within a few weeks.
I’m not flying drones for money. Do I still need a license?
Everyone flying drones needs some sort of certification The FAA divides drone flights into two categories: commercial (you’re operating for a business or organization) or hobby (you’re flying recreationally for fun).
Hobby pilots need a certificate too, though it’s much easier to get. If that’s you, you must pass the FAA recreational drone test (referred to as TRUST). To fly drones recreationally, you must go through an easy online course, which takes about 45 minutes to complete, including a mandatory online quiz (though, it’s pretty straightforward and basically just common sense!).
It’s officially referred to as TRUST (short for The Recreational Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety Test), and it can be taken online for free via one of the FAA-approved partner organizations, which include some online Part 107 course providers, as well as organizations like The Boy Scouts of America. See the full list of TRUST administrators here.
What about gray areas?
Even if you’re flying drones not for pay, but are still operating drones for a business (like, you’re taking pictures of a high school football game for the school’s website, or you’re volunteering to use your drone to survey coastlines on behalf of a non-profit organization), you need to be operating under Part 107.
That said, your specific operation might fall into the gray area between “commercial” and “recreational.” Maybe you’re in an outdoor FPV competition, and there are prices involved, but not necessarily cash. I get a LOT of questions from people in this “grey area.” Here’s what the FAA says.
“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.”
Please contact an attorney to get further legal advice.
My drone pilot license is about to expire. How do I renew it?
Drone pilots must complete a free, online recurrent training course every 24 months. That’s good news, as in the past pilots had to take an in-person test which added extra burden (and cost!).
Luckily as of 2021, you can easily keep your FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate current from the comfort of your couch by taking an online recurrent training course through the FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) website for no cost.
The Remote Pilot recurrent online training is a series of mini quizzes, videos and text slides. There are well over 100 slides, and the course takes about one hour to go through (of course, depending on how fast you read). I would also recommend budgeting about 30 minutes to an hour for the test.
Learn more: The FAA’s Remote Pilot recurrent online training is available now. Here’s what it’s like
How can I see if someone actually has a license with the FAA to fly drones?
You can browse the FAA’s public registry of Part 107-certifed remote pilots here.
In order to browse the database, you will have to start by submitting information about yourself, including your name and address. From there, you can browse all airmen and see whether they are manned or remote pilots. You’ll be able to see each pilot’s certificate and their rating. If you’re hiring someone to do commercial drone work for you, this is a great place to check if that drone pilot is actually certified. Note that not all pilots who have certificates may show up in your database search. Pilots do have 90 days to opt-out of having their address posted so there is a significant lag in posting, and someone’s legal name may not be the name you know then as when you search them.
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Read next: Part 4 of Getting Started with Drones: What you need to know about drone insurance