Your drone has finally arrived. You rip through the packaging and then sit to assemble the pieces. You probably have to refer to the manual now and again. And, your drone is ready, steady, good to go. Is that enough to start flying your drone? Not exactly.
Test-flying indoors is all right. Otherwise, you have to register your drone, aka UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) if it weighs above 0.55 pounds (250 grams). You will then need a drone license, also called the “remote pilot certificate”, which is also issued by the FAA. You must be in possession of the license every time you are flying your drone outdoors.
At the moment, the license is mandatory when flying commercial drones, considering factors like the necessity to fly drones beyond your visual line of sight. Commercial drones also fly longer and higher and so the pilot must be aware of the air fatalities and appropriate knowledge to avoid any mishaps.
Obtaining Your Drone License In The U.S.
In the U.S., you are eligible to apply for your drone license as long as you are 16 or above, and you are able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language. You must also be of sound health, both physically and mentally, to operate a drone.
After you satisfy the above first set of eligibility criteria, you have to get the FAA Tracking Number (PDF warning) (FTN) by registering through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA). This is a unique number issued by the FAA and will remain with you throughout your aviation career.
Once you have your FTN, you need to find an FAA-approved Knowledge Testing Center to administer the initial Aeronautical Knowledge Test (Part 107 test). This test assesses your knowledge of aeronautical safety knowledge and rules for operating a drone, and you need to score a minimum of 70% to pass.
The final step is to start your license application process.
- For this, you have to 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 have to complete the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security background check. Once cleared, you will receive a confirmation email that provides instructions for printing your temporary remote pilot certificate from IACRA. This certificate is valid for 60-120 days.
- You will receive your drone license or the permanent remote pilot certificate via mail within 6-8 weeks, after the completion of all FAA-internal processing.
Your license demonstrates that you have the required knowledge about the regulations, operating requirements, and procedures for safely flying drones.
Besides, the license is valid for two years. Every two years, you need to re-take a knowledge test to renew your license.
Skills And Knowledge Needed For The Drone License Test
To pass the initial aeronautical knowledge test, you must have information on the following topic areas (as prescribed by the FAA):
- Applicable regulations relating to small unmanned aircraft system rating privileges, limitations, and flight operation
- Airspace classification and operating requirements, and flight restrictions affecting small unmanned aircraft operation
- Aviation weather sources and effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft performance
- Small unmanned aircraft loading and performance
- Emergency procedures
- Crew resource management
- Radio communication procedures
- Determining the performance of small unmanned aircraft
- Physiological effects of drugs and alcohol
- Aeronautical decision-making and judgment
- Airport operations
- Maintenance and preflight inspection procedures
The test consists of a total of 60 multiple choice questions with three single responses (A, B, and C) for each question. The questions cover five major categories carrying different weightings (in percentage): Regulations (15-25%); Airspace and Requirements (8-15%); Weather (11-16%), Loading and Performance (7-11%); and Operations (13-18%).
You need to answer 42 questions correctly to get the minimum 70% score to pass the test. As you can see, the FAA gives significant weighting to regulations which concern safety protocols. Therefore, to get your passing grade, you must have a thorough knowledge of aviation safety regulations, along with other topic areas.
Apart from the knowledge to pass the test, you will need the operational knowledge and necessary skills to handle and maneuver your drone.
How To Develop Your Aeronautical Knowledge For The Test
You can familiarize yourself with the topics by checking out numerous resources available offline. You will need to seriously study the reading materials to develop your knowledge required not only to pass the test but also to become better at operating your drone.
You can access the study guide published by the FAA, which can help you enhance your knowledge and prepare for the remote pilot certificate exam.
What Training Is Available
By now, you know that the knowledge test for drone licensing needs some serious attention, so if you are unprepared, you might be setting yourself up for failure. However, you can apply for a retest after 14 calendar days from your previous test result date.
Although the FAA has not outlined a specific training course for a remote pilot certificate, you can refer to the online training course for part 61 pilot certificate holders. The study materials can add to your self-study resources. While all the resource materials and training courses on the FAA website are free, other agencies will charge you for the courses based on their company policies.
There are lots of training videos available on YouTube, and other reference materials, both paid and free, available online. You will also find various institutes that provide test preparation courses that help you with the entire exam process. These institutes also train you in operating a drone incorporating all the safety measures.
- Pilot Institute (https://pilotinstitute.com) offers a “Part 107 Made Easy” course for $149 (lifetime access). It also offers other training courses to operate drones.
- Drone Pilot Ground School (www.dronepilotgroundschool.com/) has a course for $299 (lifetime access), claiming their 99.99% students passing rate in their first attempt.
Further Information On The Licensing Exam
Your prior knowledge on the topic areas covered in the license exam will be a decisive factor on how long you need to train or study. For the average person, preparation can take 15-20 hours of study time, lasting one to two weeks. Whether you do self-study or enroll in a training course is therefore entirely up to you.
You can find your nearest test centers approved by the FAA here: https://faa.psiexams.com/faa/login. You can type your postal code, select the country from the drop-down menu, put in your preferred distance, and select the “Unmanned General Aircraft – Small” from the “Exam” section. You can then choose a center and schedule a date for the exam.
While filling the exam application form, according to the FAA guidelines, you need a proper identification that contains the following:
- Date of birth, which shows the applicant meets or will meet the age requirements of this part for the certificate and rating sought before the expiration date of the airman knowledge test report; and
- Permanent mailing address. If the applicant’s permanent mailing address is a post office box number, then the applicant must also provide a current residential address.
The exam fee is $160 and is non-refundable. On the exam day, you must carry a valid government issued photo identification. The exam is two hours long (120 minutes). There are 60 questions on the test, and the passing score is 70%. You have to have at least 42 correct answers to pass the test.
To find out the result, you can go to the FAA website within 48-72 hours of your test. If you have passed the test, then you are ready to start your application for Remote Pilot Certificate.
From obtaining your FTN to receiving your temporary drone license (Remote Pilot Certificate), it could take about 4-6 weeks. Your temporary license is valid for up to two months, and it will take another 6-8 weeks for your permanent license to arrive. Your permanent license is valid for two years.
If you fail the test at your first attempt, there is a provision for a retest. However, keep in mind that your $160 fee is non-refundable, so you will be paying the same fee again. Also, you will have to wait 14 days to take the retest.
After the lapse of two years, you need to take a recurrent knowledge test. The process for re-taking the test is less complicated and less time consuming compared to the initial knowledge test.
You can fly your drone once you obtain your temporary drone license. You need to be able to easily access your license whenever you are flying your drone. By law, you will be required to present this certificate at any times when you are engaged in UAS operations.
Failure to do so may end in your license getting revoked, and you could face prison time of up to three years and/or pay a fine of up to $250,000. Such severe penalties help ensure safe flights for drones and other aircraft.