When it comes to being licensed to fly your drone, the world breaks down into two simple classes of drones and operators. On the one hand, there are the hobbyist drone operators who use their drone without hope or intent of compensation.
And then there are commercial drone operators, who use their drones with the intention (and usually the prior agreement) to get compensation in some fashion – usually, though not by any means always, financially.
The difference breaks down quite simply.
If you are a hobbyist drone operator, you do not need to get a license from the FAA.
You do however have to register your drone or drones with the FAA. In addition, you have to mark the drone’s registration number clearly on its body so that it can be identified.
And in addition, you have to carry your proof of registration for each drone you fly, any time you fly them. You also have to agree to the FAA’s rules on hobbyist (or ‘modeler’) drone flights, including:
- Fly only for recreational purposes (enjoyment).
- Follow the safety guidelines of an FAA-recognized Community Based Organization (CBO).
- Keep your drone within the visual line of sight or use a visual observer who is physically next to and in direct communication with you.
- Do not interfere with manned aircraft. Give way to them in any traffic situation.
- IF you’re going to fly your drone in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, or E) you need prior authorization from DroneZone. You should also keep the drone below 400 feet.
- Even if you’re flying in uncontrolled (Class G) airspace, stay at or below 400 feet. The sky is not your limit – 400 feet is.
- You must take and pass the Recreational UAS (or drone) Safety Test, known as TRUST.
- You must not fly your drone in a dangerous manner, e.g. under the influence of drugs or alcohol – in short, do not drink and drone.
If, on the other hand, you want to operate a commercial drone, then yes, you need a license – and there are potentially heavy fines for operating your drone without the license (up to $32, 666 per drone illegally operated).
To operate a commercial drone legally in the US, you need to get what’s called a Part 107 Certificate from the FAA. That’s essentially your commercial drone pilot’s license.
To get that certificate, there are further requirements you need to meet.
- You need a good standard of English, in reading, writing and speaking.
- You must demonstrate both physical and mental soundness to safely operate a drone.
- You must be at least 16 years old.
- You must pass an Aeronautical Knowledge Test – your Part 107 test – at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
- You must undergo Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) security screening.
As with recreational drone pilots, if you’re a commercial drone pilot, you must keep your remote pilot certificate with you whenever you fly your drone. You must also surrender your drone for inspection by the FAA whenever you are requested to do so.
Do I have to register my drone with the FAA?
Which is to say, yes, whether you fly drones on a recreational basis, or whether you have your remote pilot certificate under Part 107 of the FAA regulations, meaning you can fly drones commercially and for compensation, you will need to register each drone you own and fly.
The cost of registering a drone is minimal – $5 apiece.
If you’re a hobbyist or modeler drone pilot, not being compensated in any way for the drone flights you make, you need to get a registration number for each drone you own from the FAA.
You then need to mark each drone clearly with the correct registration number, so that it can be seen and if need be, read during a flight by any observer on the ground.
In addition, you need to carry the correct registration certificate for the drone you’re flying at any given time, and are not allowed to fly more than one at the same time. To do so breaches the conditions of the certificate being issued to you.
You should also be careful to obey some other rules to make sure you don’t invalidate your certificate once you have it. In particular, you should obey the rule about keeping to heights of 400 feet and under at all times, and only flying in controlled airspace (airspace where the FAA monitors the operation of manned aircraft) with express permission.
If you fly drones commercially, you still need to register your drones in the usual way with the FAA, but you need to do a whole lot of other things too, such as taking a test to get your remote pilot’s certificate under Part 107.
In those circumstances, it’s not your certificate of registration you need to keep with you whenever you fly your drones, but your remote pilot’s certificate. That said, the remote pilot’s certificate will correspond to your date of drone ownership, so you’ll have a record of which drones belong to which pilot.
That means in the event of any drone infraction or breaking of the rules of Part 107, the FAA will have a relatively quick way of identifying the owner and probable pilot of any drone guilty of an airspace infraction, or any other incident.
Getting your drones registered – and yes, you have to register each drone individually, rather than registering yourself as a drone pilot and having any number of drones in your collection – is a simple, relatively cheap process and it allows for accountability in a new and rapidly-growing field.
Drones are peculiar in the history of aviation, in that they can be both hobby-size and commercial-size without necessarily very much difference in their power or range of capabilities. So, there’s an unusual situation when it comes to keeping track of the proliferation of drones at each level.
By dividing the world of drones into these two broad classifications, the FAA can provide a pathway to pilothood for commercial operators, to ensure that drones which operate in the commercial world are operated safely. It can also ensure that even hobbyist’s drones are registered in case of accidental or intentional infraction.