At last word, the FAA is still expecting to announce the final rule on June 17 of this year (my guess is mid-July), with implementation predicted to happen around August. It is clear that it is now too late to seriously consider the option of applying for exemption under Section 333.
In the original NPRM 14 CFR § 107 the FAA outlined:
Operators would be required to:
o Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
o Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
§ 107.65 Aeronautical knowledge recency.
A person may not operate a small unmanned aircraft system unless that person has completed one of the following, within the previous 24 calendar months:
(a) Passed an initial aeronautical knowledge test covering the areas of knowledge specified in § 107.73(a); or
(b) Passed a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test covering the areas of knowledge specified in § 107.73(b).
Part 107.73 lists the specific areas of study:
§ 107.73 Initial and recurrent knowledge tests.
(a) An initial aeronautical knowledge test covers the following areas of knowledge:
(1) Applicable regulations relating to small unmanned aircraft system rating privileges, limitations, and flight operation;
(2) Airspace classification and operating requirements, obstacle clearance requirements, and flight restrictions affecting small unmanned aircraft operation;
(3) Official sources of weather and effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft performance;
(4) Small unmanned aircraft system loading and performance;
(5) Emergency procedures;
(6) Crew resource management;
(7) Radio communication procedures;
(8) Determining the performance of small unmanned aircraft;
(9) Physiological effects of drugs and alcohol;
(10) Aeronautical decision-making and judgment; and
(11) Airport operations.
In case that is not convincing, consider the fact that the final report to the FAA from the Micro UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) included this:
The ARC is unanimous in its belief that operator knowledge is very important to the safety of the NAS. One purpose of airman certification requirements is to assure adequate operator knowledge. It is the understanding of the ARC that pursuant to proposed part 107, the only means of achieving airman certification will be to take an in-person knowledge test and submit to a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) background check – even for operation of UAS in the lowest risk category (Category 1, under 250 grams).
Several bills in both the US House and Senate also included testing requirements, consistent with the original NPRM proposal:
H.R. 4432: (3) (A): “…the Administrator of the FAA shall develop an initial aeronautical knowledge test that meets the requirements set forth in the notice of proposed rulemaking.
S. 1314: (3)(A) Exam Development… initial aeronautical test that meets the requirements set forth in the notice… passing grade on the test developed under subparagraph (A):….
The current legislation, S. 2658 contains an almost exact copy of the wording from the previous bills:
“(c) Aeronautical knowledge and safety test.—Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, in consultation with manufacturers of unmanned aircraft systems, other industry stakeholders, and community-based aviation organizations, shall develop an aeronautical knowledge and safety test that can be administered electronically…“
So what about the current pilot license requirement under Section 333? Again, from the original NPRM, where the FAA states:
“The FAA considered proposing to require an individual to obtain a commercial pilot certificate with a UAS type endorsement before operating a small UAS. Issuance of such a certificate would require that the applicant obtain a Class II airman medical certificate, pass an aeronautical knowledge test, and demonstrate flight proficiency and aeronautical experience with a certificated flight instructor. However, given the lower level of public risk posed by small UAS operations, the FAA decided that imposing such requirements would be unduly burdensome to small UAS operators. Moreover, as explained in further detail in preamble section III.E.2.iii.a below, the FAA believes that the training, testing, proficiency and experience requirements for obtaining a commercial pilot license have limited relevance to the nature of small UAS operations.
The best way to satisfy the requirements would be for operator applicants to submit for TSA clearance using the new student pilot registration system through a local flight school (CFI) and to then take an exam at a CATS testing facility. If the final rules require verification of flight logs or flight skills, that would logically be provided by a CFI or DPE. Remember, the FAA long ago recommended that UAV operators keep a log of their drone flights. There was a reason. When the testing will be implemented and how the TSA requirements will be handled remains to be seen, but will likely be revealed in the next few months.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball or a visit with Miss Cleo (obscure reference to a famous fortune teller) to predict the future for sUAS operators. Taking into account that even the FAA quietly acknowledges that somewhere between 80 and 90% of current 333 Exemption holders DO NOT hold the required minimum Sport or higher pilot certification, it is clear that setting unrealistic operator requirements simply does not work. The FAA knows that, and so does almost everybody else. (“Set the bar too high and people will walk under it.”) The alternative of operators with no aeronautical knowledge or skills is equally unworkable and dangerous. Some insurance carriers are requiring a pilot license and that means non-pilots may forego insurance coverage.
The current situation is simply not working, and operator testing is a good solution. There are forces in the ASTM F38-03 committee that are pushing for testing in broader areas of aeronautics (harder test).
In short, the NPRM had it right all along: basic operator knowledge testing. Some flight schools are beginning to realize that the surge of new Sport Pilot students may begin to taper off as more and more people figure out which way the wind is blowing with regard to operator testing, and some of those schools are likely starting to think about adapting their ground school lessons to those 11 areas listed in the NPRM. The flight school that I am associated with is doing just that.
So what should the wise small UAS operator be doing to prepare for what is very likely to be on the way? Some study in the areas listed in the NPRM might be a good first step. With some research it is possible to find the necessary resources and references in various publications, including the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, various “drone” manuals and other sources.
Another option would be to make the small investment of $9.95 for the new eBook by Tim Trott, which is now available at Amazon.com, and can be read using any e-reader, including the free Amazon Kindle Reader app for PC, Mac, tablets and “smart” phones. While thousands are still awaiting approval of Section 333 exemptions, in the course of a few of hours reading the 72 pages of this easy-to-understand e-book and the 50 question sample test, a “drone” operator can be better prepared for what could be coming as soon as this fall.