Getting A Drone License

A little over a week ago, I passed my FAA Part 107 test. I now have a Remote Pilot Certificate! In other words, I’m now licensed to fly drones.

Here are a few interesting facts about drones:

1. In my first semester of Property Law at law school (my previous life was as a lawyer), I learned about the ad coelum doctrine. That’s short for “Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos,” which translates roughly as “whoever’s is the soil, it is theirs all the way to Heaven and all the way to Hell.” This is the legal reason why your neighbor can’t dig a tunnel under your house or extend his third-story over the top of your house. You own that wedge from the center of the earth all the way to infinity. Kinda. Actually, you just share that bundle of rights we call “property” with the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA. Inside your house, you can fly any aircraft you want between the floor and the ceiling without getting the government’s permission. But that area above your roof–it’s a different matter. It’s not completely your property any more. It’s what the government calls the National Airspace System. It is illegal for you to fly any aircraft in the airspace above your home (or anywhere else, for that matter) without getting permission from the FAA.

2. How do you get FAA permission to fly a drone? The FAA doesn’t really talk about drones. It talks about “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” (“UAS”). What is a UAS? The term includes model aircraft, such as remote-controlled drones (quad-copters) and radio-controlled airplanes, which are used for hobby or recreational purposes. All drones weighing more than .55 pounds and less than 55 pounds must be registered. If you’re a hobbyist, you can register as a “modeler,” pay a $5 registration fee, and write your registration number on your drone. You can use the same registration number on all drones you fly, without paying any additional registration fees. If you fly a drone for any commercial purpose, however, you must obtain either a Section 333 grant of exemption (something that really doesn’t apply to most of us) or a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate, and you must register separately each drone that you fly and pay a separate $5 fee for each one.

3. Why is it important to follow the FAA rules? Because if you don’t, you can be hit with a $27,500 civil penalty, a $250,000 criminal penalty, or even 3 years in jail for each time you fly a drone in violation of the rules. There’s a recent case of a photographer who had been taking real estate photos for decades using helicopters. He switched to using drones, but he didn’t get a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate. He never had an accident, and he never flew in a restricted area. All he did was make 65 unauthorized flights, take pretty photos, and sell them. The FAA found out and imposed a $1.9 million civil penalty. The FAA eventually agreed to reduce the penalty to $200,000. He will owe an additional $150,000 if he violates FAA regulations within the next year, and an additional $150,000 if he violates the settlement agreement. He also has to make 3 public service announcements in the next year. Yikes! He’ll have to sell lots of photos to pay for that.

4. Four months ago, the FAA announced that there are more than 1 million drone users in the US. Of that number, 878,000 are hobbyists and 122,000 are commercial and other users. The FAA has predicted there will be more than 7 million drones flying over the US in another year-and-a-half.

5. DJI, a Chinese company, manufactures 78% of all drones used commercially in the US. In fact, DJI drones outnumber every other type of aircraft in service in the US today.

Okay, so what?

Same-old/same-old photographs are frequently boring. Good photographers are always looking for a fresh way of looking at what they’re photographing. Some portrait photographers will lie on the ground for a different viewpoint. Others will climb on ladders to make overhead shots. Ansel Adams frequently climbed on the roof of his station wagon to get a fresh perspective on a landscape. Drones are merely another way for a photographer to make an image in a way that nobody has ever done before.

I know that there are probably a lot of unlicensed photographers who sell photos they’ve taken with their unregistered drones, and I realize that the chances of ever getting caught are slim. However, I didn’t want the risk of having my photography business slapped with multiple $27,500 civil penalties. You might be willing to take the risk.

So, I decided to go through the licensing process and get a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate. Here are the steps that I went through:

First, I called Computer Assisted Testing Service, Inc. and paid a $150 fee over the phone to register to take the FAA Airman Knowledge Testing Exam at a flying school in Addison, Texas.

Next, I prepared for the exam by attending a one-day class with Robert and Kathy Norwood. Robert is a commercial airline pilot and both he and Kathy are professional photographers. The class made for a very long day, but it was definitely worth it. That night, I reviewed what we had studied in class using an app on my iPad called Remote Pilot, by Prepware.

The next day, I went to my assigned test date at American Flyers School in Addison. I was told that I could not enter the test room with notes, a cell phone, smart watch, or other smart device. I was given 3 pieces of paper, a hand calculator, a pencil, and a test book with charts. I was allowed to bring my own magnifying glass, which was absolutely essential. I was seated at a computer terminal and given two hours to complete the test. I don’t think anyone used more than an hour. In fact, the testing center was scheduling tests only one hour apart, although they would allow anyone who needed it the full two hours. I could have finished in 45 minutes, but I took extra time answering the questions that needed a magnifying glass, so I think I finished in about 55 minutes. After the test was over, I was required to return the 3 pieces of paper, calculator, book, and pencil to the testing authority.

American Flyers flight school in Addison, Texas, where I took my Part 107 test. There are numerous testing locations around the country, many at flight schools near busy airports. The FAA website has a link to help you find one near you.

There were 60 multiple-choice questions on the test. Approximately half involved  regulations, a couple required reading and interpreting weather reports, one or two were questions about wing stresses on airplanes (which has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with flying a drone!!!), and the rest involved reading and interpreting airport approach charts. A 70% grade on the test was required to pass. Everybody who took the class taught by Robert and Kathy Norwood passed the test. I made a 92. I suspect several others did even better.

This image from the Testprep Remote Pilot app shows the kind of weather report you’ll need to be able to interpret. Until you know how to read it, you’ll think it’s just gibberish typed by a two-year-old. I think there were only one or two questions about weather on the test I took. The Remote Pilot app was a definite help in practicing for the test.
This image is also from the Remote Pilot app. If you practice with the app a little bit, you’ll get to where you can actually make some sense of what this shows. Unless your eyes are a lot better than mine, you’ll definitely need a magnifying glass. I think slightly less than half of the 60 questions on the test I took required reading and analyzing these kinds of charts.

So what did I learn from the test-taking process? Four things: (1) It’s a real advantage to be able to take a course under people as knowledgeable as Robert and Kathy Norwood. (2) The Remote Pilot app recommended by Robert is an excellent review tool. (3) If you take a course like the one I took, be sure and take the test the next day while the material is still fresh in your mind. (4) Did I mention that you should take a magnifying glass with you to the test?

If you decide to get your Remote Pilot Certificate, I wish you well. Hope you have clear skies!