Do You Really Need a Pilot's License for Commercial Drones?

Logan Campbell -

We often hear questions from people interested in commercial UAS about what the requirements are to actually be a commercial UAS pilot.  This question carries numerous implications, with the biggest problem that, the more certifications required, the more expensive it is to hire and train a commercial UAS pilot.  So the short answer to the question of whether or not your UAS pilots need an FAA issued pilot's license is: Yes.  To operate commercially right now, commercial UAS pilots need a license to fly manned aircraft from the FAA.  However, the real questions to be asking are: what will the licensing needs be in the future, and when are they going to change,  and how should I adjust my business model to these issues?

It is abundantly clear to the FAA, commercial UAS companies, and even the general public, that all of the safety requirements we put on manned aircraft pilots are not necessary for UAS.  The skills required to pilot UAS safely a few hundred feet above the ground are very different than those required to fly cross-country.  Thankfully, the FAA has acknowledged this, and their proposed rules would eliminate this requirement. According to original deadlines, they are supposed to integrate the final version of these rules by September 2015.  Unfortunately, that is not going to happen.  

The most recent direct communication from the FAA targeted June of 2016 as the target date for releasing the final version of these rules.  However, the FAA has missed deadlines like this in the past, and occasionally by significant margins.  It would be foolishly optimistic to have faith in this deadline, especially if the viability of your UAS business line depends on this changing.  

Realistically, the effective elimination of the pilot license requirement for commercial UAS will happen sometime in 2017, and any businesses involved in commercial operations ought to plan accordingly.  For many operations, this may mean running only a small test program for the next 18 months with the more expensive pilots, and then scaling the business fully once the requirements change.  For others, it may mean holding off on their UAS operations altogether, as the cost structure just doesn't work under the current regulatory system.  

Getting a sport pilot's license, the lowest way to fulfill current requirements, can cost as much as $10,000 per person, enough to crush many business models.  Thankfully this is going to change.  However, it is important to consider when this is going to change, and what the costs will be once it does change.  So although the current requirements are universally acknowledged as being burdensome, ultimately they will change, and a well informed manager can navigate the changing regulations well enough to be successful.  

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Logan is the founder and CEO of Aerotas.  He graduated from Harvard Business School in 2015 and brings experience in a broad range of industries, including agriculture, real estate, and finance.  A lifelong tinkerer and avid UAV enthusiast, Logan also has hundreds of hours of flight experience over a broad set of different UAV types.