By Dr. Randy R. Price
One of the most asked questions I receive about drones is the licensure and certifications needed for flying. Currently, there are several ways to fly a drone in U.S. and for most people these are commercially or recreationally.
For commercial use, you (or one of your employees) must have a license with the FAA called a “Remote Pilot Certificate” and the drone must be registered with the FAA and have those registration numbers displayed on it (https://registermyuas.faa.gov/). Commercial use is defined as any type of use for business purposes such as providing imagery for compensation or hire, using the drone to enhance your current business, such a roofing company using the drone to inspect roofs, or making maps of farm fields to make better judgements for increased monetary returns.
Recreational use of a drone does not require an operator’s license, or a registration number, and includes the use of the drone for novelty, recreational, or fun purposes. This flying can even be done to record imagery of farm fields and crops, as long as those images are not used in management decisions for monetary returns. Do keep in mind that if you fly recreationally, the same general set of flight rules exist for both operations and can be found at: https://www.faa.gov/uas/ . The four main rules of this set are:
1) Don’t fly more than 400 feet high
2) Keep the drone within line of sight
3) Yield to manned aircraft
4) Don’t fly around airports
I suggest that if you are interested in drones, and wonder about their possibilities, you purchase a drone and fly it recreationally first. This will allow you to learn about drones, how they work and their capabilities. Most commercial drones are very close to retail drones at this time and I have found that the DJI Phantoms 3 and 4, and the Parrot Disco are good drones to start with. They fly well, are inexpensive (< $1000) and have good safety systems (return-to-launch buttons, geo-fences, preprogrammed maximum altitudes, etc.). In addition, the DJI drones work well with Pix 4-D Mapper, a tablet based program that allows you to make automated flights over farm fields and maps (although you cannot use this imagery to make business judgements or the flight becomes commercial use). This program is free on most tablets.
If you later decide to perform business operations with your drone, you can take the Remote Pilots License test and be qualified for business type uses. The remote pilot’s license is fairly straight forward and requires you only to pass the written part of a pilot’s ground school test. After passing this test, you can apply for the “Remote Pilots License” certificate through the FAA.