This guide will give you a complete breakdown of a how to get a commercial drone license in the United States in 2020.
According to FAA rules, a drone is an “Unmanned Aircraft System” (UAS) and anyone flying a drone for any commercial purpose must have a Remote Pilot Certificate (RPC) and fly by following the FAA Small-UAS Rules Part 107.
Overview of the Latest U.S. Drone Requirements
The current Part 107 rules that drone pilots need to follow came out in 2016. The FAA made some updates in June 2018 that are included in this review of the requirements to get a drone license for commercial flying.
What Does the FAA Define as the Commercial Use of a Drone?
The FAA defines a “commercial purpose” in drone flying as any use of a drone that is done for payment including the receipt of in-kind services.
To understand the distinction, a non-commercial use of a drone would be if a person flies a drone to capture images of a resort that they visit while on vacation. If the images are captured for home movies, there is no need for the drone pilot to have a license.
A commercial use of a drone occurs, if that same person flies the same drone over the same resort to capture images for a promotional presentation of the resort and is paid for the footage. The payment may be made in cash or by in-kind services, such as receiving a room discount for doing the work. This commercial use of that drone requires a remote pilot’s certificate.
FAA Drone Registration
There is an FAA requirement to register drones that are used for either hobby or commercial flying depending on how much the drone weighs. Any drone that weighs more than 8.8 ounces - 0.55 lbs. (250 grams) must be registered with the FAA.
Register any drone with the FAA if it weighs more than 0.55 lbs and less than 55 lbs. (25 kg.) including any payload that it carries. This can easily be done online at the FAA Drone Zone. The cost for the registration is $5 (as of January 2019). The registration is good for three years. After registration, put the unique FAA registration number on your drone for identification purposes.
Any drone that weighs 55 lbs. or more needs to be registered by using a paper application and sending it to the FAA by using the information about how to file a notarized, paper application.
What is a Remote Pilot Certificate?
The FAA uses the term “Remote Pilot Certificate” as its official name for what is commonly called a commercial drone license. Any person flying a drone for commercial purposes must have a remote pilot certificate. The pilot must also pass an initial knowledge test and a recurrent test every 24 months thereafter to maintain current remote pilot status.
Which Type(s) of Pilots Need a Drone License/Certification?
There is a difference between recreational and commercial drone flying. Recreational hobby drone fliers do not need to have a remote pilot certificate. The certificate is only required for those who make money or get paid something for flying a drone.
However, the FAA rules about how to fly drones apply to both commercial and hobby flying of drones. This means that recreational drones fliers need to learn and follow the general regulations under FAA Part 107 rules that apply to all drone flying as follows:
- Drone weighs less than 55 lbs. (25 kg) including any load it is carrying.
- Always conduct a preflight inspection for safe operation.
- The drone pilot must always have visual line-of sight of the drone and be able to see it without any visual aids, except corrective lenses.
- The pilot must not fly a drone over any people, under a covered structure, or inside a covered vehicle that is stationary.
- Fly only in daylight or in civil twilight (30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset) only if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lighting that is operating.
- Yield the right-of-way to manned aircraft.
- First-person-view (FPV) flying requires another person to serve as a drone viewer to help with collision avoidance.
- 100 mph maximum groundspeed.
- 400 feet above ground level is the maximum altitude or within 400 feet of a structure if flying from a structure that is above ground level.
- 3 miles minimum visibility.
- Operate only in Class G unrestricted airspace unless Air Traffic Control permission is obtained.
- Fly only one drone at a time.
- No flying from a moving aircraft or a moving vehicle except over a sparsely-populated area.
- No careless or reckless flying.
- No carrying of hazardous materials.
- No drone flying by any person who has a physical or mental condition that would interfere with the safe operation of the drone.
Do Businesses Need to Have a Remote Pilot Certificate?
Remote pilot certificates are issued to qualifying individuals, not to businesses. Any person flying a drone for any business must have an individual remote pilot certificate,
What is a Rule Part 107 Waiver?
A drone-flying business needs only to follow the rules in the state where it is located, unless it wants to use drones in ways that would violate FAA rules.
The FAA requires that a business get a waiver if any drone use would violate standard FAA rules. For example, using drones to capture footage of events by flying over crowds is prohibited unless the drone-flying business or pilot first obtains special permission to do this by applying for an FAA waiver.
- Other waivers are necessary for specific types of drone flying that include:
- Drone operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft (Section 107.25).
- Flying a drone at night (Section 107.29).
- Not having visual line-of-sight of the drone (Section 107.31).
- Not having a visual observer (Section 107.33).
- Operation of multiple drones at the same time (Section 107.35).
- Not yielding the right-of-way (Section 107.37(a)).
- Operation within certain restricted airspace (Section 107.41).
- Exceeding operating limitations (Section 107.51).
Which Pilots Are Getting Their Certification?
The commercial uses of drones are rapidly expanding. Some examples of pilots include aerial photographers/videographers, police and firefighters, mining engineers, architects, construction crews, and aerial surveyors who use drones for mapping and 3D modeling.
Do Drone Racing Pilots Need a Certificate ?
The FAA does not regulate drone flying that is done indoors. A drone must be registered with the FAA if it weighs more than 8.8 ounces = 0.55 lbs (250 grams).
However, a person does not need a remote pilot certificate to race a drone indoors even if they are being paid or winning prizes.
Racing drones outside for a hobby does not require a remote pilot certificate either unless the racing is done commercially for pay or to win prizes.
If a person gets any pay or receives in-kind services, such as prizes, for flying a drone outside, this requires the drone pilot to have a remote pilot certificate.
I Already Have My Manned Pilot's License, Do I Need a Drone License As Well?
Yes, anyone commercially flying drones outside needs to get a remote pilot certificate.
However, for FAA-approved pilot of other types of aircraft, they simply need to take a free online course offered by the FAA and pass the completion exam.
The details are explained in the section entitled “Remote Pilot Certificates for Already FAA-Certified Pilots” below.
What is the 333 Exemption? Do I Need One?
The FAA rule 333 is the regulation that requires a pilot to get an airworthy certification of an aircraft by having an FAA inspection of the aircraft. Commercial drone fliers avoid this requirement in one of two ways.
One way is by using a drone that is already approved for exemption on the master list maintained by the FAA for this purpose.
The other way is by applying for and getting a 333 exemption for a drone that they register with the FAA for commercial use if the drone is not on the FAA-approved master list.
Penalties for Flying a Commercial Drone Without a Remote Pilot Certificate
In 2015, the FAA fined a company in Chicago called SkyPan $1.9 million for making 65 unlicensed flights using a drone for aerial photography in controlled airspace without having Flight Traffic Control permission. The company eventually negotiated a settlement with the FAA of $200,000.
Since that time, in 2016 the FAA released its new rule Part 107 that required commercial drone pilot to be licensed. The FAA penalties are up to $27,500 for each civil violation and up to $250,000 for each criminal conviction with the possibility of jail time as well.
So far, the FAA has not enforced these penalties, preferring instead to conduct public education about the new laws instead. At the present time, in January 2019, violators get warning letters from the FAA and then must get their remote pilot certificate to avoid paying a fine.
There is no guarantee that the FAA will continue to be this lenient in the future, so getting a certificate when required is a good idea.
If you would like to get a full breakdown of drone laws and regulations in the U.S., check out this guide.
How to Get an Individual Remote Pilot Certificate
There are two pathways to get a remote pilot certificate. One is for pilots who are already FAA-certified and have current status to fly another type of aircraft. The other is for first-time pilots.
Both first-time drone pilots and FAA-qualified pilots of other types of aircraft must pass an initial test. After that, they take a reoccurring test to stay up-to-date with new knowledge every two years in order to maintain active status for their remote pilot certificate.
FAA-qualified pilots get to take a free knowledge course test that is on the FAA website. First-time drone pilots have to register with an FAA-authorized testing center, pay a fee ($150) and go in person to the center to take the test.
When flying a commercial drone, the pilot must always have in his or her possession a current remote pilot certificate and a certificate of passing test results that are not older than two years. These two documents must be presented to any law enforcement officer or FAA representative upon demand.
Remote Pilot Certificates for Already FAA-Certified Pilots
The requirements for this category of Existing Part 61 Certificate Holders are:
1. Hold a valid pilot’s certificate under FAA Rule 14 CFR Part 61.
2. Have successfully passed a flight review within the past 24 months.
3. Take the free FAA online training course called “Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems ALC-45” and pass the knowledge test exam.
4. Wait at least two days after completing the course and then go to IACRA to fill out Form 8110-13 and enter your knowledge-test exam ID number.
5. Go to an FAA-approved facility* to prove your identity in person and get your remote pilot certificate. A temporary one is issued and then the permanent one comes in the mail after several weeks.
*For identification verification, make an appointment, and then take a government-issued photo ID with the completed Form 8710-13, proof of your current flight review, and the knowledge test completion certificate to any of these FAA-approved entities:
- An FAA Flight Standards District Office
- FAA-designated pilot examiner
- An airman certification representative
- FAA-certificated flight instructor (cannot issue temporary certificates)
To be eligible you must be at least 16 years old, be able to read and comprehend English, and be in a good enough mental and physical condition to be able to safely fly a drone. You must pass a knowledge test.
In order to pass the test to get a remote pilot certificate for the first time, a person needs to complete three steps, which are:
1. Study the FAA Part 107 rules and drone-flying regulations.
2. Take practice tests.
3. Take and pass the official FAA written test for the remote aircraft class of the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) at an FAA-approved testing facility.
How to Study the FAA Part 107 Rules
The FAA rules that cover drone flying are called Part 107. The FAA offers a summary of the Part 107 rules that any aspiring remote pilot should study carefully. You should memorize everything in this summary because these are the most important basic rules. You should also read the full FAA Small-UAS Rules Part 107.
Questions on the test will come from these sections in Part 107 Rules:
- Section 107.1 Who Can Apply
- Section 107.3 Definition of Terms
- Section 107.5 Falsification or Alteration of Certificate
- Section 107.7 Drone Inspection, Testing, and Compliance
- Section 107.11 Who Can Fly Drones
- Section 107.12 Remote Pilot Certificate Requirements
- Section 107.13 Registration of Drones
- Section 107.15 Safe Operating Conditions
- Section 107.17 Medical Issues
- Section 107.19 Pilot in Command Rules
- Section 107.21 Flight Emergency
- Section 107.23 Hazardous Flying
- Section 107.25 Operating a Drone from a Moving Vehicle or Aircraft
- Section 107.27 Flying While Using Alcohol or Drugs
- Section 107.29 Daylight Flying
- Section 107.31 Visual Line-of-Sight Operation
- Section 107.33 Visual Observation
- Section 107.35 Operation of Multiple Drones
- Section 107.36 Carrying Hazardous Materials
- Section 107.37 Right-of-Way Rules
- Section 107.43 Flying Near Airports
- Section 107.39 Flying Over People
- Section 107.41 Class E Airspace and Unrestricted Airspace
- Section 107.45 Operation in Restricted Areas
- Section 107.47 Proximity to Restricted Areas
- Section 107.49 Preflight Inspection and Checklist
- Section 107.51 Operating Limitations for Drones
- Section 107.57 Alcohol and Drug Test
- Section 107.59 Alcohol and Drug Offenses
- Section 107.61 Eligibility
- Section 107.63 Remote-Pilot Certificate with a Small-UAS Rating
- Section 107.64 Temporary Pilot's Certificate
- Section 107.65 Aeronautical Knowledge
- Section 107.67 Knowledge Test Procedures and Passing Score
- Section 107.69 Cheating on the Test
- Section 107.71 Re-taking Test After Failure
- Section 107.73 Initial Training and Test
- Section 107.74 Recurrent Training and Tests
- Section 107.77 Address or Name Change
- Section 107.79 Voluntary Certificate Surrender
- Section 107.200 Waiver Rules
- Section 107.205 List of Regulations for Waiver
There are 63 questions on the test. Three questions are mixed in that are for data collection and do not count in the scoring grade. You should answer all the questions because you will not be able to tell which questions are for data collection only. There is no deduction for any incorrect answers, so use your best guess for any questions that you are not certain about.
This FAA publication is an outline that lists the knowledge standards by the section of the FAA rules that are required to pass the test: Remote Pilot – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Certification and Recurrent Knowledge Testing) Airman Certification Standards - Updated June 2018
The FAA has the free Remote Pilot – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide. This 79-page study guide is what test takers need to study in great detail because all of the test questions come from this guide.
The FAA also publishes a supplemental test guide that shows the kinds of aeronautical charts and diagrams that the test questions will refer to for the exam. A supplemental is included with the exam.
3d Robotics also has an excellent free study guide that is very easy to read.
3D Robotics also offers a very useful regulations cheatsheet that should be memorized.
The questions found on the test will come from five areas, which are given different weights, in terms of the number of questions, based on what the FAA considers to be the most important.
The topical areas and the approximate number of questions are:
- Part I. Regulations (6 to 15 questions)
- Part II. Airspace and Requirements (6 to 15 questions>
- Part III. Weather (6 to 7 questions)
- Part IV. Load and Performance (5 to 6 questions)
- Part V. Drone Operation (25 to 30 questions)
The FAA Part 107 drone exam is not easy to pass. It is not possible to pass it without studying very seriously. Many of the questions on the exam are technical in nature. Often the questions are very tricky. Here is an example:
What is the weight of an sUAS?
- A) 55 kilograms or less
- B) 55 lbs. and less
- C) Under 55 lbs.
To answer this question correctly you need to know that an sUAS stands for a “small unmanned aerial system.” This is a very specific category of drones. They can be registered online with the FAA. They do not require a more extensive paper application to be filed with the FAA, which is the requirement for drones weighing 55 lbs or more. Also, note that drones that weigh under 0.55 lbs. (250 grams) do not require FAA registration.
The correct answer is “C” because the small “s” category of a UAS is a designation for those under 55 lbs. A drone that weighs exactly 55 lbs. would NOT qualify, so the tricky answer of “B - 55 lbs. and less” is incorrect.
A memory aid to use is the over/under 55 rule, i. e. over 0.55 lbs. and under 55 lbs. are the sUAS that must be registered with the FAA.
Good Option: Taking Practice Tests
It is probably a good idea to take some practice tests for FAA Part 107 drone-flying exam before going to the trouble to pay the fee and then take the in-person test.
The FAA offers sample test questions.
Drone-maker 3D Robotics has an excellent online FAA Part 107 Drone Exam that you can take for free. There are 130 questions, which cover all kinds of important things. Some are easy, others are quite challenging. There is an automatic scoring system so you can see in real-time what your score is after you take the practice test.
Ruppert Law offers a study guide and another practice test that gives an explanation of the answers.
King Schools offers a free online practice test that allows you to select from 10 to 60 questions. They have an online exam prep course too but it is expensive at $129.
To see how tough some of these questions can get Drone Pilot Ground School published the 13 Most Missed Part 107 Questions.
Here is an example of a tough question that is often answered incorrectly:
The lifecycle stage of a thunderstorm mostly characterized by downdrafts is called what?
- A) Dissipating
- B) Cumulus
- C) Mature
The correct answer is A - Dissipating.
Taking the Test to Get an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate
Register for the test at an FAA-approved testing facility and pay the fee ($150). There are 60 questions on the test (plus 3 extra that don’t count in the score).
To receive a passing grade you will have to receive a score of at least 70%. This means you must answer 42 of the scored test questions correctly. You have 120 minutes to answer the 60 questions.
Here are some tips for taking the test:
- Get a good night’s sleep the day before the test.
- Arrive to the test site early.
- Make use of the chart legend that is included in the test supplemental materials to help you answer questions about the charts.
- If you get stuck on a question, skip it temporarily and come back to it later before the time runs out.
- Use common sense and choose the most conservative answer from the choices.
- Answer all questions. There is no penalty for wrong answers.
If you fail the test, you must wait 14 calendar days before you can take it again. You will be given a report that shows what questions you answered incorrectly. To re-take the test, you will have to pay the $150 testing fee again. This means it is a good idea to study more during those 14 days to avoid another test failure.
Most test takers do best by concentrating on the regulations, airspace rules, and operation rules because these three categories make up to 70% of the test questions.
Recurrent Testing Every 24 Months
To maintain current status, a drone pilot must take a test another test every 24 months. If your remote pilot certificate expires in a certain month, you have until the end of that month to take the recurrent test in order to be able to continue to fly your drone commercially. You can continue to fly but only for hobby purposes until you pass another test.
Pilots who have a remote air certificate because they are also FAA-approved pilots under Part 61 and have had a flight test within the past 24 months, can meet the recurrent test requirements by taking the free online FAA course. It is called “Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems ALC-45” and then they must pass a test upon course completion.
This online course is constantly updated with new information and questions. Anyone who wants to take this test as a free practice test is welcome to do so. The certificate of course completion only has a legal impact for the pilots who are FAA-approved pilots under Part 61 to fly other types of aircraft.
Drone pilots, who only have the remote pilot certificate, need to take another written test at an FAA-approved testing center once every 24 months and pay the fee (around $150).
Difference Between the Initial Test and the Recurrent Test
The initial test has 60 scored questions. The recurrent test only has 40. The initial test allows 120 minutes to complete the test. The recurrent test allows only 80 minutes to answer the smaller amount of questions.
In both cases, there are two minutes allowed on average to answer each question. To pass the recurrent test requires a grade of 70% or higher, which is the same as correctly answering at least 28 of the 40 questions.
In the initial test, the subject matter covered is more extensive. There are questions on regulations, airspace, weather, load/performance, and operation. In the recurrent test, the questions about weather and load/performance are not asked.
The concentration for the recurrent test is on questions about regulations, airspace, and operation, with more weight on regulations and airspace.
In both the initial test and the recurrent test, the FAA puts great emphasis on the applicable regulations, the maintenance/preflight procedures, emergency procedures, and crew resource management. The subject topics that are not included in the recurrent test include weather sources and the effects of weather on the performance of a drone.
Other things that are not on the recurrent test are aircraft loading rules and determining the performance characteristics of a drone.
The FAA also does not ask again on the recurrent test about radio communication procedures. There are no questions on the physiological effects of drugs and alcohol on pilots on the recurrent test.
To be successful in the recurrent test, it is important to first review any changes in the FAA regulations that have occurred over the past 24 months and then refresh your memory on the subject matters that have not changed.
Further Reading and Resources:
- FAA Drone Zone
- FAA Certificated Remote Pilots Including Commercial Operators
- FAA - Become a Drone Pilot
- FAA Part 107 Summary
- FAA Online Course - Part 107 Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (small UAS) Initial Test
- Remote Pilot – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide
- FAA Testing Supplement of Charts etc.
- FAA Sample Test