4 Steps to Becoming a Professional Drone Pilot

4 Steps to Becoming
a Professional Drone Pilot

FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate
Checklists and Field Safety Procedures

by: logan campbell

There is more to becoming a profession drone operator than passing the initial aeronautical knowledge exam. The FAA cares that you understand regulations, airspace classifications, and weather. The remote pilot certificate from the FAA does not prepare you for implementing a checklist culture, following field safety procedures, and collecting consistent, reliable data with your drone.

At Aerotas, we specialize in getting businesses up and running with complete drone systems, and a big part of that involves setting our clients up to be professional drone pilots. There is often a lot of confusion about what it means to be a professional drone pilot; it is more than just passing an FAA exam. Instead, being a professional drone pilot involves a whole suite of professional responsibilities. Below, we detail the 4 key steps required for being a professional drone pilot. 

1) Get Your Drone License

The first and most well-known step is to get your FAA Part 107 license.  This is the FAA’s Small UAS certification that allows you to legally operate drones that weigh less than 55 lbs for commercial purposes.  Receiving a Part 107 license involves paying $150 fee and passing a two-hour multiple-choice test at one of the FAA’s many testing centers.  The test covers airspace safety information including regulation, airspace classification, weather, and basic flight operations.  It is similar to the multiple choice test required for receiving a drivers license, in that it is a basic test to make sure you understand the rules of the road.  However, just as with driving a car, simply understanding the rules isn’t enough to make you a competent and professional pilot.  The FAA Part 107 test covers airspace safety rules, but it doesn’t have any hands-on portion to prove real-world proficiency. 

Aerotas CEO Logan Campbell presented a full-day workshop on how to prepare for the FAA Part 107 Unmanned Aircraft General exam. This link will give you access to the video of the complete workshop and all materials referenced in the session.

  • The presentation slides used in the videos

  • A 3-page summary of the rules of FAA Part 107

  • FAA Part 107 Test Sample Questions

2) Get Trained to be a Safe Drone Pilot

After receiving the FAA Part 107 license, the next step is to learn how to fly safely. Before flying professionally, it is essential to have a solid understanding of your aircraft, its limitations, and emergency procedures. This means having a good grasp of a large number of factors, including how wind and temperature impact performance and how to inspect the aircraft to ensure it is in good operating order. Further, it is crucial have well-developed emergency procedures defined and practiced. We regularly see unexpected incidents happen in the real world, such as an emergency helicopter entering a project area, or a dangerous event happening on the ground. In our experience, professional hands-on training is crucial for making professional pilots. In-person training is required by the most reputable insurers for drone liability coverage, but does not have to be a burden. Start by checking out the resources section of this site. Aerotas Resources is your guide to drone surveying. This section of aerotas.com is a knowledge base full of best practices developed with hundreds of surveyors over thousands of drone survey projects.

You will find guides, instructions, checklists, and tools that will help you get more out of your drone survey program.

What you’ll find? 

  1. Getting Started

  2. Legal Rules & Regulations

  3. Mission Planning

  4. Field Operations

  5. Data Processing

  6. Working with Aerotas

  7. Linework Deliverables & Specifications

Our material contains proven strategies and tactics for using a drone to produce a better quality product, in less time, and at a lower cost than traditional surveying methods.

Proper mission planning helps to manage processing time

Two important questions to ask before using the drone to collect data.

Is this a good site to use my Drone on?

This can be a bit of a misleading question because what you really should be asking is, “What data do I need to collect on this site?”, also, “Is the drone the right tool for this job?” If you need imagery for existing survey work, or want to have a reliable record of site conditions, then a drone is an excellent tool for almost every job. If you need topographic data, then a drone is a great tool provided the project site isn’t completely covered in trees. Photogrammetry based drones can only map what they can see. So if, for example, you needed to map the floor of a forest, the drone wouldn't be the right tool for that job.

I have airports and controlled airspace near my projects. Is it legal to fly there?

Over 98% of the land in the United States does not require any authorization to fly a drone up to 400’ above ground level; however, there are still major portions of US cities that are in controlled airspace. Thankfully, over the past few years, the FAA has considerably loosened their airspace restrictions, while also making it much easier and faster to get one-off airspace authorizations for project sites near, or even on airports themselves. Of the 15,000 airports in the US, fewer than 900 are in controlled airspace that requires authorization. Moreover, of those, nearly 500 airports participate in the FAA’s LAANC program. LAANC is the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability; it provides access to controlled airspace near airports through near real-time processing of airspace authorizations below approved altitudes in controlled airspace. Non-participating airports can still grant authorization through a manual filing if needed. So in almost all cases, the answer is “yes” it’s legal to fly there, and it is much easier to get approval than it was even one year ago.

3) Create Deliverable-Focused Drone Operations

Even after completing licensure and safety training, there is still more to becoming a professional pilot. A safe, legal pilot does not automatically understand what makes for high quality data and deliverables. Unprofessional pilots will collect gigabytes of photos and videos in the field without a defined mission plan or goal, and wind up with nothing more than pretty pictures. Many people think that photos and videos are the only useful things that can come out of a drone program, but that isn’t true! Drone technology today is capable of getting enormous amounts of topographic and planimetric data using off-the-shelf drone hardware. Anyone who is only getting pictures and videos out of their drone is not utilizing the technology to its fullest extent.

Well-defined operating procedures start with a defined goal of the deliverable that needs to be produced at the end of the project, then works backward from there to ensure the right data is collected, and that data is collected efficiently and correctly. Flying a drone without a mission plan is like driving a work truck without a destination, and hoping that you get somewhere useful. A professional pilot will know exactly what data they need for this mission at hand, as well as how to get that data safely, responsibly, and legally.

One of the significant criticisms of drone surveying is that they aren’t accurate enough for very high accuracy points, and this is true! Even the best drones are not going to be as accurate as a good, well-operated total station. The drone is your broad brush and should be viewed as just another tool in the truck. A drone is not a magic bullet, nor is it a stand-alone data collection device. The surveyor and their years of experience and technical expertise determine the right tool for the job. Preferably, the drone is a part of a mixed workflow. Use your highest accuracy tools for the shots that matter most, and devote your time and attention to shots where accuracy is paramount (e.g., building corners and ADA ramps). Then, use the drone for everything else (e.g., parking striping). There are many shots where 0.1’ error is perfectly OK, like rough topo or parking inventory surveys. A drone is a great tool for jobs where 0.1’ accuracy is good enough, but it is not going to defeat a total station in terms of accuracy anytime soon.

Data Processing Workflow

The purpose of this workflow is to go from drone photos to land survey deliverables in CAD. This means a single CAD file that contains:

  • Topography / 3D Surface

  • Planimetric Features 

  • Orthorectified Imagery 

To download a sample of what the final deliverable should look like, check out Aerotas sample projects below.

>> Read Full Guide

4) Get Good Drone Insurance

Lastly, professional drone operators get insured. While this is not a legal requirement (at least not yet), it will often be required by clients, and is critical in being a responsible operator.  Drone insurance usually covers two components: the aircraft itself (hull insurance), and the cost of anything the aircraft might damage (liability insurance). Hull insurance covers your business from loss of valuable hardware, while liability makes sure that you can cover the cost of any damages to people or ground equipment in case of a crash or other issue. Nearly all standard business liability insurance polices do not cover drone operations due to the standard "aviation exclusion," so special coverage is required. Note that good quality insurance will cost considerably more if a firm does not have proper safety training and operating procedures.

Being a professional drone pilot involves being licensed, knowing how to fly safely, having a defined and deliverable-oriented operation, and being properly insured. Skipping any one of these things could open you or your business to serious risk. At Aerotas, we put together complete drone systems that includes comprehensive training and support for making client teams into professional pilots. Whether you go work with us or anyone else, it is important for the whole industry that you become a safe and responsible pilot. 

A well-managed drone program should be saving both time and money relative to ground-based surveying needs. If it isn’t saving time and money, then it isn't working. The good news is tools exist that can enable you to have a simple, reliable, accurate, and profitable drone surveying program.

Questions? Contact us anytime at (949) 335-4323, or info@aerotas.com