Getting Your Drone License: FAA Version
Drones are honestly one of the best tools or toys that a responsible person can have. They’re challenging, fun, artistic, useful, and educational in equal parts.
But note the ‘responsible person’ portion of that sentence. Because in the wrong hands drones can be annoying, invasive, malicious, and downright dangerous.
That’s why many governments around the world require some form of certification for drone pilots. When combined with a registration and identification system, firmly established no-fly zones, and penalties for those who go rogue, licensing can be an effective way to weed out the malicious drone users from the largely responsible piloting community.
Wanna know how it works? Let’s talk about getting your drone license with the FAA!
Recreational Or Commercial?
There are two types of FAA registration, depending on what you plan to do with your drones. Luckily, the FAA has a little test that will tell you which one you should be looking at.
For most people who don’t plan to make money off of their drone flying, will only fly during the day, and will keep their drone within visual range at all times, the results of that test will be ‘recreational’. A recreational flier still needs to register at the Drone Zone. But they won’t need a full drone license or FAA certification of any kind.
Recreational fliers do have a basic test that they need to pass: The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST). This is a fairly recent development, starting in June of 2021. The folks over at UAV Coach can help you pass that. Full details on recreational flying can be found on the FAA website.
But let’s face it: You want to do the cool stuff, right?
All of the really cool drone stuff that you see online involve waivers. Waivers will let you do things with your drone that aren’t normally allowed: Camera operated flight beyond line of sight, high speed flight, twilight flight, etc. Only holders of a Remote Pilot Certificate can apply for waivers. And of course, if you want to make money off of your drone operation, you need the commercial license anyway.
Getting Your Commercial Drone License From The FAA
Now that we’ve established that all of the cool kids have their commercial drone license from the FAA, it’s time to teach you how to get one.
It’s technically called the ‘Remote Pilot Certificate’, and there’s a much higher standard involved if you want to get one. Full details are on the FAA site mentioned above, but here are the most significant steps:
Step 1: Survive until you’re 16 years of age.
You need to be aged 16 or older to hold a commercial drone license. This is similar to the car driving age in most states, so no shock there. You also need to be of sound mind to enter a legally binding agreement with the FAA, therefore being of age is a prerequisite.
Step 2: Master English
Or at least learn English well enough to understand FAA instructions. Because there’s a federal license involved, commercial drone licensees are subject to understanding and obeying instructions just like any other aircraft pilot. This might include temporary grounding measures, alerts about flying conditions, and the like. All of those communications will happen in English, and the authorities expect you to comprehend them immediately. So you’ll need to understand English well enough to pass your test and to receive on the fly (no pun intended) instructions as required.
Step 3: Pass your AKT.
The Aeronautical Knowledge Test (AKT) will make sure that you have the book-knowledge necessary to hold a commercial drone license from the FAA. Think of it as a ‘written test’, just like the one you would need to pass in order to hold a driver’s license. These need to be taken in person. Drone Pilot Ground School has a list of government approved testing centers across the U.S.
Step 4: Apply for your Remote Pilot Certificate
Next you need to fill out some paperwork online. The Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) can help you out there. It’s where pilots go to take care of piloty things. In this case, register a new account on the site and select ‘Remote Pilot’ as your role. The site is accessible via your PC, phone or tablet. Don’t use the Forward or Back buttons on your browser, it will break the site. Just use their internal navigation.
Step 5: Pass Vetting
Vetting, or investigation to assure your fitness as a drone pilot, is automatic for any new application for a Remote Pilot Certificate. Usually your IACRA application will give the government everything they need to work with. But from time to time, you or your friends and neighbors may be quizzed about your intentions. Once vetting is done, assuming there are no red flags, you’ll get your Remote Pilot Certificate.
Keeping Your Remote Pilot Certificate
You need to establish a safety track record and follow all of the rules if you want to successfully apply for more advanced permissions via the waiver system. Once you do, the FAA will probably let you stretch your wings a little bit, assuming your drone is properly equipped and the area is appropriate for things like twilight flights, high speed flights, high altitude flights, remote camera flying using a headset, and the like. And of course if you’re making money from your flying, you need to file the proper taxes and keep things above board.
Other things to note:
- You need to pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every two years to make sure you’ve been keeping up with new laws and developments in the world of drone flying.
- You need to update your existing drone registration every three years, and keep your registration card on you whenever you’re operating or maintaining the drone.
- You need to conduct your normal pre-flight tests without fail before operating your craft.
- Report accidents to the FAA within 10 days if they caused injury or resulted in property damage valued over $500.
Other than that, make sure you stay on top of new rules, paperwork, and anything else that you were taught when you got your drone license with the FAA.
The Final Word
As of 2022, the entire process will usually run you between $200 and $300 if you want that commercial drone certification. Otherwise, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with the recreational certification!
And for those of you reading this in the U.K., don’t worry: You have your own wonderful governmental process to go through. It isn’t dissimilar to the U.S. version, but has specific restrictions and permissions that you need to become familiar with. Read carefully, fly safely.