WSJ and Forbes “Scoop” Some Really Old News…

Flash! The story is spreading like wild fire! — The Wall Street Journal has acquired “leaked” draft rules for UAS from “anonymous sources”.

(Jack Nicas/Andy Pasztor) Highly anticipated federal rules on commercial drones are expected to require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls, according to people familar with the rule-making process.

A similar story appeared in Forbes. It’s all over Twitter…


When the FAA authorized Section 333 exemptions for UAS use in film production, ALL of the exempted drone operations were required to have a pilot in command who is licensed to fly privately in the US.

As we also said as much here back in May of 2014:

Check the last bullet point in the last part of section of the AVIATION SAFETY UNMANNED AIRCRAFT PROGRAM OFFICE AIR-160 Interim Operational Approval Guidance 08-01 (page 15):

For the PIC (Pilot In Control) to be exempt from the pilot certificate requirement … the PIC must have successfully completed, at a minimum, FAA private pilot ground instruction, and have passed the written examination.
(That document is from March of 2008, by the way, so I’m not sure how that qualifies as “breaking news” now. Nothing has changed.)
In other words, UAV pilots won’t be required to learn how to fly a “full size” airplane, but they will need to take the basic pilot knowledge written test.
If you think about it, what else could the FAA do? The emphasis is on making new rules or modifying the existing rules, but the job doesn’t end there. There needs to be ways to enforce the rules and that starts with requiring potential pilots to know what the rules are. In that way it’s no different from driving a car: you have to prove to the DMV that you know the rules of the road by passing a test.
So why the big surprise at the Wall Street Journal and Forbes in “discovering” something that has been made fairly clear for more than six years?
Many people, especially “newbie” owners of even low cost “drones” can easily underestimate the skills required for safe operation. Ground effect turbulence, magnetic fields, sudden wind gusts, and disorientation can lead to unexpected trouble, injury and property damage. The biggest problem is that a large number of radio control pilots don’t know what they don’t know, and that makes a clear case for making sure that a pilot has basic knowledge as well as the basic skills necessary to stay out of  trouble.
At some point it is likely that the FAA will likely create a specific test for UAS pilots, but since there currently is no FAA test for UAV pilots, the next best thing is the Private Pilot test or “PAR” exam. Admittedly, that test is overkill for UAV operation, but at this point that’s the minimum test.
So how to prepare?
There are many resources available, including free and paid online courses and videos.
Sporty’s Study Buddy – Free and low cost ($9.95) versions.
Ascent Ground School – Also free with upgrade options
Quizlet — Flash cards (free)
Free Online Ground School — Like it says…
Then it’s time to get serious: In order to be allowed to take the FAA test you will be required to provide a certificate from a ground school training course. That can be a local flight school or a qualified online course:
Gold Seal Online Training Course – Video lessons, resources and test questions
Dauntless Aviation Course – Software

Personal recommendation: All of the above.

FAA tests are administered at a number of test centers. A list can be found here. The fee for taking the test can run from $150 to $300.  The FAA provides information about the testing process here. A certificate from a recognized ground school final exam is required before taking the FAA test.

That FAA private pilot test is known as the “PAR”, with questions drawn from the FAR/AIM (regulations and information manual) and the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. These publications can be purchased from the Government Printing Office, from local book stores and online. It will also be useful to print out the FAA AKT Charts Supplement which contains the graphics and maps referenced in the actual FAA exam.

Here is what can be expected (my list) to be the requirements for legal commercial operation of a UAV in the US:

  • Passing an FAA test such as the “PAR”
  • Demonstrating flight experience, likely in the form of log book records, likely to be in the range of 20 to 25 hours flight time
  • Obtaining insurance coverage specific to the operation of UAVs. (More on that later)
  • Generating formal safety procedures, probably in the form of an Operations Manual (PDF)
  • Registration of aircraft and “N” numbers (more on that later)

Existing FAA documents relating to UAS operation include mention of a (third class) Medical Certificate requirement (even for the “observer”) but there are pressures from the AOPA and the General Aviation community to do away with the Third Class Medical requirement. It still might be good to know who your local FAA certified medical examiners are, however, just in case.

The current best guess is that a Notice of Preliminary Rule Making (NPRM) might be expected as soon as some time in December (2014). The NPRM process generally involves two months of Public Comment, followed by review of the public comment input, evaluation and implementation. Taking into consideration that any adopted rule changes will need to be published, which adds more time for preparation for publication, along with time for implementation of any new testing procedures, that puts us at somewhere after March or April at the very earliest for actual official UAS pilot licensing in the US. Some have predicted as late as July 2015 or even November 2015, but there are strong pressures from high places to speed up the process.

However, it is very possible that we could see authorization for agricultural uses for UAS under section 333 exemptions sooner (January?) in the same limited manner as the movie industry exemptions.

To be continued…