So, You Want To Be A Commercial Drone Pilot

droneYou’ve read about how the next big business will be drone piloting and you want to get in on it now…!   Slow down.  While drone services are projected to be a growing business, (FAA predicts it’ll be a $90 billion industry within 10 years)  this is still an industry in its infancy.  Drones used for film, video and photography will likely lead the way. Already, these projects account for nearly half of all FAA approvals so far. But higher margins in engineering, surveying and agriculture could lead these industries to slowly come to the forefront, experts say.  Another probably application:  policy surveillance.  Piloting schools are lining up to offer courses to wanna-be drone pilots….at a cost.   However, before you plunk down your dollars to get a license, as few words of caution.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about who can pilot commercial drones and the rules are evolving as we write this blog.  Remotely piloted vehicles and unmanned drones, collectively known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, have revolutionized the way the military performs certain tasks and this revolution is very likely to occur in commercial markets.  The FAA is facing mounting pressure from civilian and law enforcement agencies to further expand UAS use into the national airspace system. There are presently three methods of gaining FAA approval for flying civil (non-governmental) UAS:

  1. Special Airworthiness Certificates – Experimental Category (SAC-EC) for civil aircraft to perform research and development, crew training, and market surveys. However, carrying persons or property for compensation or hire is prohibited. For more information, please contact the Airworthiness Certification Service, AIR-113, at 202-267-1575. 1,3
  2. Obtain a UAS type and airworthiness certificate in the Restricted Category (14 CFR § 21.25(a)(2) and § 21.185) for a special purpose or a type certificate for production of the UAS under 14 CFR § 21.25(a)(1) or § 21.17. 7,8; or
  3. Petition for Exemption with a civil Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for civil aircraft to perform commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments. For more information, please visit our Section 333 page. Instructions for petitioning for exemption are available here.

The FAA has been slow moving on civilian UAVs.   Granted,UAV pilot training takes less time than traditional flight training.  However, the training is still difficult and time consuming….and expensive. A huge component of current civilian training is conventional flight training and knowledge of basic engineering tests.

The FAA rules will develop slowly, as the agency grapples with a large number of safety, privacy and technological challenges.  There are currently hundreds of models of UAS in production, and like all aircraft they range in size and mission. Additionally, they come in two major varieties: drones and remotely piloted vehicles. Lost communication is a major concern to the FAA, which fears that a rogue UAS could cause serious problems without proper separation from other aircraft.

In reality, the FAA doesn’t have a license for commercial drone pilots at the present time.  To receive a certificate of authorization for commercial operations under Section 333 FAA Modernization & Reform Act of 2012, commercial drones must be operated by an individual holding a private pilot certificate and current third-class medical.Currently, UAV pilots typically hold some or all of the following licenses, ratings, and certificates:

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Medical Third Class – Certificate
Private Pilot – License
Commercial Pilot – License
Airline Transport Pilot – License
Instrument Pilot – Rating


With the commercial drone industry in its infancy, pilots should not quit their day jobs to operate drones and you shouldn’t jump into a “drone pilot training course” without understanding the number of uncertainties about this growing industry.

1 reply
  1. Lachlan
    Lachlan says:

    Thanks for finally writing about “So You Want To Be A Commercial Drone Pilot”. Don’t see this blogged about very often. Very informative.


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