The Case for Licensing UAS Pilots and Aircraft

I have no “inside information” into the operations of the FAA with regard to their intentions, nor do I claim any psychic abilities, but putting together the pieces of the puzzle as they are now, I can make some guesses as to what we might expect, possibly as soon as next week.

…Or not.

The FAA has recently hinted that it could issue the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for unmanned aircraft some time in “late December”, which is where we are now, with not much time left. While there had also been hints for a November release date, my guess is that we could have an announcement this week, with the actual NPRM to be open for comment at a later date (January?). I’m clearly hedging my bets here, since my original prediction of Friday, 12/19, failed to produce any news.

At whatever time it comes, once the NPRM begins, the comment period could go on for two months or longer. Any written pilot tests related to the changes would need to wait until the revised rules are published and a new contract with the testing company. That’s the best case scenario. Reality could fall anywhere between now and 2017 or later.

What might we expect to see?

When a person is licensed to drive an automobile they must take a written test proving knowledge of the basic “rules of the road”. When those rules are broken it can result is loss of the license. That is an effective enforcement tool as well as a way to maintain safety; “safety” being the key. There are also requirements to demonstrate driving skills and to carry insurance. Keep this model in mind with regard to future UAV operation.

Recently there has been discussion about a requirement for a pilot license for operating UAS “for hire”. As we stated on this web site back in May, there are FAA documents that actually make that statement, and there are logical reasons not to expect that to change. Because of pressures on the FAA from various sources including congress to move commercial use of UAS forward, the Agency could decide to accept a passing score on the existing PAR pilot exam as well as a current pilot license for UAS pilots or operators prior to implementation of a specific licensing test.

At present the FAA conducts “knowledge tests” for pilot certification for Sport, Recreational, Private, Commercial and Airline Transport. A Student Pilot certificate is issued by a medical examiner. Passing of flight and written tests are required for the student to obtain a full pilot license.  The FAA conducts written and verbal testing in specific areas of knowledge for each type of license or certification. Since there is no currently existing test for UAS pilots, the FAA could initially open UAS licensing as an “endorsement” to the Private Pilot class licenses and above, or to those who have passed the basic “PAS” knowledge test alone, which is how many of the newly-minted “unmanned” training schools are preparing students.

The FAA might initially postpone actual flight tests for UAV operators with a Private Pilot license or above. As Certified Flight Examiners are designated we can then expect a requirement for flight testing for basic skills, including patterns borrowed from the Private Pilot requirements, demonstrating proficiency in flying “S” turns across a line, rectangle pattern, circle turns around a point. The tests should be adapted for fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft.

With the creation of a specific test for pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles  and systems (UAS), we might expect the FAA will want to assure that UAV pilots have knowledge in certain specific areas, and test questions will come from the PLT section of the existing FAA “test bank” of questions.

To stay clear of restricted areas UAS pilots will need to know where they are and how to identify class B, C, D, E and G airspace (PLT040, 064) on Sectional Charts. To make decisions regarding safe altitudes, UAS pilots will need to know the difference between MSL and AGL (PLT023). UAS pilots will need to be aware of Temporary Flight Restrictions (PLT376) where to find them and what they mean. Understanding of weather causes, formation, effects and forecasting is also important (PLT075, 081). There is also the matter of Collision Avoidance (PLT194,195).

At some point there could be additional questions added to the (PLT) list specifically relating to UAV, such as VLOS definitions, batteries and battery (LiPo) safety, and UAV limitations and safety considerations (proximity to spectators, crowds, highways, buildings, etc.)

As for the Knowledge Test that might eventually be created specifically for UAV operators, I would expect the questions to be drawn from: PLT 022, 023, 030, 037, 040, 044, 048, 058, 067, 075, 081, 109, 116, 122, 098, 103, 104, 109, 122, 131, 194, 205, 215, 258, 259, 262, 268, 269, 270, 271, 290 and 291. There might be 30 or 60 total questions on the test.

Already existing for for unmanned aircraft is the requirement for N numbers and aircraft registration as well as aircraft airworthiness certification.

It is not logical to expect the FAA to require UAS/UAV pilots  to have flight time in a manned aircraft. What is logical that, in the place of flight hours in a manned aircraft, UAS pilots would need to show logged flight time with the UAV they expect to be flying. As a matter of fact, the FAA has already said that.  For example, it could be that if you intend to fly a rotorcraft, you would need at least 5 hours logged flight time with a rotorcraft out of perhaps 20 to 25 hours total logged flight time. The logical expectation is that the logs would need to be notarized.

At the core of the NPRM, however, will be the modifications of existing rules to extend to UAS. The list will relate to the exemptions approved from the existing authorizations for oil company, motion picture and, most recently, surveying, construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspection. Agricultural and public safety/search and rescue applications may come sooner rather than later.

I would also expect requirements for BLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) to come much later and to include ADS-B, flight plans, possibly strobe lighting, and a minimum Private Pilot license, likely with a version of IFR endorsement.

These are some of the rule modifications that are likely to be addressed in the Notice of Proposed Rule Making:

  • At the core, of course, is the current prohibition of Private Pilots to fly for hire. UAS operations conducted for purposes other than hobby or recreation which will require modifications to the regulations in 14 CFR. N742TT
  • Most obvious is the rule that will need to be modified is FAR Part 45, Subpart C, details the requirements for assignment and display of aircraft registration numbers. I would expect the modification of that rule to allow for one inch numbers or more and proportional to the particular aircraft. The placement of the numbers will also need to be addressed. The most likely location for N numbers on a quadcopter would be the top surface (see photo at left). For fixed wing aircraft the locations would be similar to full size planes.
  • There may be a modification to 14 CFR part 67 with regard to the requirement for a medical certificate. That area is currently under pressure from General Aviation interests, so it could be a tough issue to sell.
  • There will need to be adjustments to Part 21 relating to Certification procedures for products and parts, Airworthiness Certificates
  • Adjustments will be needed to 14 CFR § 91.7(b)) in regard to the simple matter of requirements for Aircraft Identification placard placement “inside the aircraft”.
  • There are quite a few other adjustments and changes that will be needed to Part 91 relating to general operating and flight rules, including pre- flight actions – 91.103(b)2), flight crew members at stations – 91.105, flight instruction – 91.109, minimum safe altitudes – 91.119, altimeter settings – 91.121, fuel requirements in VFR conditions – 91.151, maintenance requirements – 91.405, operation after maintenance – 91.407, inspections – 91.409, and maintenance records – 91.417.

At some point I can see the potential for a requirement for liability insurance coverage and a formal Safety Procedures Manual. Those are requirements in other countries and have been listed in some of the approved COAs and exemptions.

It is conceivable that the FAA could require that a licensed pilot be present and responsible or as the Pilot In Command (PIC) and to sign off on the log book but not necessarily to be the only one flying the UAV. That would provide a scenario necessary for pilot training.

PS: As for an interim solution to Sense and Avoid, what about strobes for daylight flying?
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NEXT BLOG POST: The Registration and Certification process for UAV aircraft.