Part 107 Explained

 

Most people in the United States who've been involved with the drone community have at least heard of "Part 107", but if you still have questions about it or if you just need a resource to refer other people to, then this guide is for you. It provides an overview of the following topics:

 

·       Part 107 Defined: What Part 107 is, how and why it exists, and who it applies to.

·       Certification Requirements: The requirements a person must meet to be 107 certified.

·       Certification Process: The overall process involved in obtaining a 107 certification.

·       Remote Pilot Exam: Preparing for, scheduling, and taking the test.

·       Certificate Application: Applying online to receive your 107 certificate.

·       Waiting for a Certificate: What to expect once you've completed the online application.

·       Laws and Regulations: Making sure you obey the applicable laws, rules, and regulations.

·       Part 107 Pilot Responsibilities: Things you must do to use your certification responsibly.

 

Once you've read all this content you should have a good understanding of the topic and be able to easily decide whether it's something you want to pursue.

Part 107 Defined

 

First let's clarify what the phrase "Part 107" means. Technically it should be referred to as "14 CFR Part 107", which means the 107th part of Title 14 in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). As its name implies, the CFR is the published collection of U.S. regulations created by various federal agencies, and Title 14 is the portion of those regulations related to aeronautics and space. In this case the relevant agency is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is responsible for regulating civil — that is, non-military — use of the U.S. airspace. From the FAA’s perspective, drones are considered just another type of aircraft, but with the distinction of being unmanned as opposed to other types, such as airplanes, helicopters, hot air balloons, etc. that are operated with people on board. The fact that drones are unmanned leads to them being treated differently in some ways compared to other types of aircraft. On that note, the FAA doesn’t use the word “drone”, but instead refers to a drone as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or, less commonly, as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Technically “UAS” and “UAV” have slightly different meanings, with “UAV” referring only to the equipment that flies and “UAS” referring to the entire system of hardware (including the remote control, for example), but in most contexts “drone”, “UAS”, and “UAV” are used somewhat interchangeably.

            Another important thing to be aware of is that the FAA classifies drones based on their weight, and a drone (including payload) weighing less than 55 pounds at takeoff is referred to as a “small UAS” (sUAS). That distinction is important because the FAA regulations for these "small" drones are less complex than the regulations applicable to heavier ones. In particular, the Part 107 regulations apply only to this lighter (sUAS) category of drones, but fortunately all popular affordable consumer models fall well below the 55-pound threshold. As a basis of comparison, for example, the various models of DJI’s popular line of Phantom drones weigh around three pounds or less.

            Before the availability of affordable consumer quadcopters, model aircraft were relatively scarce and most were the fixed-wing (airplane) variety. The FAA’s primary concern has always been the safety of people and property, but because these model airplanes flown for fun posed little threat to manned aircraft the FAA adopted a permissive attitude towards them. However, as drones – primarily in the form of off-the-shelf quadcopters – have become more common and their capabilities have expanded, the FAA has taken a more assertive position with respect to what it broadly classifies as “model aircraft”.

            As video recording became possible using smaller and lighter cameras, pioneers like Gene Robinson began using camera-equipped drones for search and rescue (SAR) operations, having the aircraft assist in locating people — often children — who were missing. However, early adopters like Robinson often encountered resistance or even were outright prohibited from using drones by the FAA, which now indicated that it believed the drones to be a potential threat to manned aircraft. The FAA’s position was essentially that drones were another form of aircraft and that in this case neither the aircraft nor its pilot were certified to be operating.

            The FAA also distinguished between model aircraft operated for fun (“hobby or recreation”) that it continued to allow to fly, and those operated for others reasons such as part of a SAR operation or professional aerial photography. In other words, “flying for fun” was still allowed, but flying a drone for any other reason was essentially prohibited by the FAA. As we’ll see, that distinction is important in the context of Part 107, and for simplicity we’ll refer here to what the FAA calls “flying for fun” as “recreational” flight.

            In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the "FAA Modernization and Reform Act", part of which required the FAA to develop and adopt more drone-friendly regulations. One portion of that law, specifically Section 336, resulted in the FAA creating a set of Special Rule for Model Aircraft regulations that essentially allows quadcopters and other model aircraft to be flown for fun without FAA approval as long as certain guidelines are followed. That, of course, didn’t help the drone SAR community since they weren’t flying for fun, but another result of the new law was the creation of the Part 107 regulations that introduced a new remote pilot certification. In effect, this new Part 107 certification is the sUAS equivalent of a manned aircraft pilot certification; that is, it allows a person who has received the certification to fly a drone for non-recreational purposes. Note that the FAA itself is careful to say that it “certifies” pilots and doesn’t “license” them, but many people still refer to FAA-issued certifications as “licenses” (e.g., “a private pilot license”), so you may hear people refer to this remote pilot certification as a “drone pilot’s license” even though it's technically a certification rather than a license.

            Regardless of what it’s called, the creation of the 107 certification represented a major step forward for people wanting to use drones for non-recreational purposes and as we’ll see, getting a 107 certification is relatively easy, at least by FAA standards. At this point, though, it’s important to emphasize again that from the FAA’s perspective there are two distinct categories of model aircraft use: recreational (“flying for fun”) and everything else, and the 107 certification only applies to the “everything else” category. That distinction is important because a myth that’s commonly repeated on the internet is that a remote pilot certification is required only if you intend to use your drone to generate income, such as for creating potentially revenue-generating YouTube videos. In reality, any sUAS flight that doesn’t occur “strictly for hobby or recreational use” or that doesn’t meet all the other conditions of Section 336 falls under the Part 107 regulations, which means that the drone pilot would need to be certified before flying in any of the following scenarios:

·       Using a drone to take an aerial photograph of a property for a realtor friend.

·       Flying around a farm to monitor crops or search for livestock.

·       Volunteer search-and-rescue operations used to locate a missing person or animal.

·       Capturing video with the intent of posting it on YouTube.

Some in the online community have mistakenly claimed that in the first scenario, for example, a 107 certification isn’t needed if you’re just using your drone to do a friend a favor and won’t be paid, but that’s incorrect: anything other than flying for fun requires a certified remote pilot.

Certification Requirements

 

The FAA has defined four requirements that have to be met for someone to receive a Part 107 certification. Specifically, the person must:

·       Be at least 16 years old.

·       Be able to communicate in English.

·       Not have a physical or mental condition that would interfere with safe sUAS operation.

·       Demonstrate aeronautical knowledge.

For most people the first three requirements are easily understood and met, and it’s the fourth – demonstration of aeronautical knowledge — that represents the biggest challenge. Those holding an existing manned (e.g., private pilot) certification and having a current flight review can easily meet the fourth requirement by completing a free online sUAS pilot course. But if, like most people, you don’t already hold a current pilot certification then you’ll need to satisfy the knowledge requirement by passing the exam created specifically for those wanting to become a remote pilot. For non-pilots, passing that exam — formally known as the “Remote Pilot Knowledge Test” — represents the majority of the effort involved in obtaining a 107 certification, and for the rest of this guide we'll assume you'll need to take that exam instead of the free online course for pilots.

Certification Process

 

At a high level there are just a few things you need to do to become certified and fly as a 107 pilot, all of which we'll examine in detail:

1.     Demonstrate aeronautical knowledge by passing the Remote Pilot Knowledge Test.

2.     Complete the online application form.

3.     Wait for your 107 certificate to arrive.

To a large extent the amount of time it takes to complete this process depends on how quickly you can learn what's needed to pass the test, and as we'll see in some cases it's possible to be flying as a 107-certified pilot within a week or two of passing the exam.

Certification Step 1: Completing the Remote Pilot Knowledge Test

 

As mentioned before, one of the requirements of a 107 certification is the ability to demonstrate aeronautical knowledge, and for most people that means taking and passing the FAA's test designed specifically for drone pilots. Because it's the most complex step in the certification process and the one that normally takes the most time and effort, we'll break this step of the certification process into three different parts and discuss each one in detail:

a)     Test Preparation: Topics covered on the exam and how to prepare for it.

b)     Payment and Scheduling: Paying for and scheduling the test.

c)     Taking and Passing: A description of the test experience and what's needed to pass.

Certification Step 1a: Test Preparation

 

For most people this step is the most time-consuming, but fortunately there are a wide variety of sources of information regarding what you need to know to pass the exam. For example, the FAA itself provides a study guide that you should use as a starting point to identify topics that you need to be familiar with before taking the test.

            The available resources come in many different forms, with most offering some combination of tutorial on the various topics covered by the exam as well as sample questions and explanations of the correct answers. They're available in both text- and video-based formats, through web sites and mobile device (iOS

 or Android) applications, and some are free while others are only accessible by paying for access to them. Alternatively, if you prefer more traditional methods of learning, there are various books and other materials such as DVD-based courses available.

            It's certainly possible to study for and pass the test using only the free resources that are available, but many of the paid offerings provide more in-depth coverage of the relevant topics and may be a better choice for someone who's new to aviation. Regardless of which resources you use, you should be prepared to spend whatever time is necessary to understand the various topics that are likely to be covered on the exam. For example, an ability to interpret sectional charts — the aeronautical equivalent of a map — is an important part of preparing for the 107 exam, as is an understanding of various other concepts such as airspace classifications. One area that's particularly important, both for passing the certification test and for flying as a 107 pilot, is an understanding of the relevant regulations, so you should be sure to include at least one source of information that covers that topic thoroughly when preparing for the exam. Regardless of which or how many sources you use to prepare for the exam, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to learn what you need to know and don't try to "cram" at the last minute if you really want to pass the test.

Certification Step 1b: Payment and Scheduling

 

The first step in the process of taking the test is to decide where to take it. The FAA requires the exam to be completed at an Airman Knowledge Testing (AKT) location, which essentially just means at one of the many FAA-approved testing centers in the United States or one of the U.S. territories where a testing center is located.

            A list of testing locations is available on the FAA's web site (search for "computer testing centers"), and you can use the list to find the location that's most convenient for you. When you find the location you want to use, the next step is to determine which of two private companies is associated with that location: Computer Assisted Testing Centers (CATS) or PSI / LaserGrade Computer Testing. The CATS locations have a site identifier (indicated by the "Site ID") that begins with "ABS", while PSI location identifiers begin with "LAS", and to schedule the test you should call the toll-free number associated with the company (CATS or PSI) that administers your testing site. In reality, all testing centers are now run by the same company since PSI acquired CATS in late 2016, but as of this writing it's still necessary to call the CATS number to schedule the test at a CATS ("ABS") location or the PSI number to take it at a PSI ("LAS") location. Although the FAA's list includes the telephone number of each testing site, you must call the appropriate toll-free ("central registration") number — not the testing center — to schedule the exam. Also, be aware that the FAA's list may not be entirely accurate: it's possible that the 107 exam isn't administered at a location included on the list, and it's also possible that a location where it can be taken isn't included on the list.

            When you call the central registration number you'll be asked for basic personal information and required to pay $150 (U.S. dollars) to schedule the exam. Before paying be sure to confirm that the location you have in mind is available, especially if your next choice of location isn't associated with the same (CATS or PSI) company. Little or no lead time is required to take the test: according to the FAA’s web site, you can simply go to a testing center without calling in advance (referred to as a "walk-in"), though calling and scheduling your exam will ensure that it’s really available at the time and place of your choosing.

Certification Step 1c: Taking and Passing the Test

 

When you arrive at the testing center you'll be asked for a photo ID that's used to confirm your identity, and when it's time to take the test you'll be taken to a monitored area and given access to a testing computer. You'll also be given materials for writing (e.g., paper and pencil or perhaps a dry-erase marker and appropriate board) as well as a booklet that you'll need to use during the exam. Note, however, that you can't bring your own book or other materials into the exam area and will be specifically prohibited from having a cell phone or other mobile device with you during the test.

            The test consists of 60 multiple-choice questions, each of which has three answers to choose from, and a score of 70% (at least 42 correct answers) is required to pass. You're allowed up to two hours to complete the exam, which should be more than adequate if you're reasonably well-prepared: most questions should take much less than the two-minute average that's needed to finish on time.

            Once you complete the exam you'll be told immediately what your score is and whether you passed, and you’ll have an opportunity to see which questions you missed. You'll also be given a printed and notarized summary of the results known as an Airman Knowledge Test Report (AKTR). If you fail the test you can take it again after waiting 14 days, in which case you must give the testing center the AKTR from your prior attempt before retaking the exam. There’s no limit on the number of times you’re allowed to retake the test, but you do have to pay for each attempt to pass the test. Once you’ve passed, you've completed the most difficult part of the 107 process and you’re ready to continue to the next step on the path to certification.

Certification Step 2: Completing the Online Application

 

Assuming you've passed the Remote Pilot Exam, your next step is to register on the FAA web site used to electronically apply for a certificate, specifically the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA). Once you've registered and logged on, you should indicate that you want to start a new application, select pilot certificate, then specify that you're applying for a remote pilot certificate, and from there you'll be required to fill out a simple form that asks for basic personal information.

            Note that you won't be able to complete the application until the FAA receives your exam results from the testing company showing that you passed the aeronautical knowledge test, which can take two business days or more. When the results have been received they'll show up on the IACRA web site and you'll be able to submit your certificate application to the FAA.

Certification Step 3: Waiting for the Certificate

 

Once you've submitted your application it's just a matter of waiting for the FAA to process it. A background check will be performed prior to issuing the certificate. Some known reasons the FAA can refuse to issue the certificate include drug or alcohol-related offenses or refusal to take an alcohol test, though there probably are others.

            Assuming that your background check doesn't raise any concerns, you should receive a temporary certificate via email soon after submitting your application, at which point you can begin flying drones under Part 107 regulations. Officially the FAA says that it expects to issue temporary certificates "within 10 business days", but in practice it can be less than a week. Your temporary certificate will be backdated to the date on which you submitted your application and is valid for up to four months (120 days) or until you receive your permanent certification like the one shown in Figure 1. That permanent certification card will be delivered to you via postal service, and based on anecdotal information it’s apparently typical for the permanent certificate to arrive around two months after the application was submitted.

Figure 1: FAA-Issued Part 107 Certification Card.

            Note that although the FAA's issuance of your temporary certificate may occur quickly, you shouldn't count on that happening, especially if potential income is dependent on you having a 107 certification. For example, if you're a professional photographer / videographer, you shouldn't wait until you've already made a commitment to a client to begin the 107 certification process, but should begin preparing weeks or even months in advance.

Federal Regulations and Other Restrictions

 

Although you’re allowed to fly once you receive your temporary certificate, before doing so you should make sure that you familiarize yourself with all applicable laws and regulations regarding what you can and can’t do. This might seem redundant since you presumably would have already learned about the FAA's regulations in order to pass the certification exam, but depending on where you are and what you intend to do, there may also be state or local laws that are relevant.

            The FAA largely reserves for itself the right to dictate where you can fly and what your drone can do while in flight, but it defers to state and local jurisdictions regarding legal issues such as land use and privacy, and state and local governments can pass and enforce laws regarding things like video voyeurism or, for example, prohibit you from operating your drone while you’re located within a park. In other words, the FAA's position is that a local government agency doesn't have the authority to prohibit your drone from flying over a park, but does have the authority to prohibit you from operating your drone while you're located inside the park.

            While the FAA's regulations are the most detailed and comprehensive ones you need to understand, they at least have the advantage of being easily accessible online and of being located in one place. On the other hand, identifying relevant state and local laws is a bit more challenging because there's no single source of information that can be used to find them and because they tend to change more often than the federal regulations. An excellent resource for learning about state laws is aviation attorney Jonathan Rupprecht's web site that includes a Drone Laws by State page, though he emphasizes that it, "is for information purposes only", "might NOT be up to date or complete" , and "is not legal advice".

            Unfortunately, identifying relevant local laws can be even more difficult, since county or municipal laws may or may not be posted online. In addition, some restrictions may not even be laws but only rules (those of a park, for example) that can result in fines if violated. In general, your best option for identifying local ordinances is to contact your local police or other government agency that has jurisdiction over the location from which you'll be piloting your drone to ensure that you know what is and isn't allowed.

            A detailed description of even just the FAA regulations — much less the constantly changing state and local laws — is beyond the scope of this guide, but we will look at some of the basic FAA requirements and regulations associated with 107 flight. However, keep in mind that before flying it’s always your responsibility to make sure you’re aware of and compliant with all applicable laws and regulations.

            The FAA summarizes the regulations by listing some of the most relevant ones:

·       Fly only in Class G airspace or get air traffic control approval for Class B, C, D, or E.

·       Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight.

·       Remain at or below 400 feet above the ground.

·       Fly during daylight or civil twilight.

·       Fly at or under 100 miles per hour.

·       Yield the right of way to manned aircraft.

·       Do not fly directly over people.

·       Do not operate your drone from a moving vehicle except in sparsely populated areas.

            Airspace classification is one of the things you need to learn about before taking the 107 exam. A 107 pilot is allowed to fly in Class G airspace without air traffic control (ATC) permission, but must get ATC permission to fly in Class B, C, D, or E airspace. Class G refers to uncontrolled airspace, which generally means areas where no airports are nearby, though you shouldn't make any assumptions about airspace based on the presence or absence of airports. The easiest way to identify the airspace associated with a particular location is to use a mobile device application such as AirMap, which will give you a display like the one shown in Figure 2 that identifies airspace in a way similar to what's found on FAA sectional charts.

Figure 2: AirMap screen capture showing airspace classification shading.

            Keeping the aircraft within visual line of sight deserves some explanation because it's sometimes  misinterpreted or misstated as a requirement to maintain "line of sight", when in reality there's a subtle but important difference between line of sight (LOS) and visual line of sight (VLOS). A dictionary definition of "line of sight" is, "a straight line along which an observer has unobstructed vision", and this definition is sometimes incorrectly believed to be what the FAA requires. In reality, the FAA requires that you maintain visual line of sight (VLOS), which it explicitly defines in the 107 regulations to mean that you can see your drone "with vision that is unaided by any device other than corrective lenses", where "corrective lenses" means glasses or contact lenses.

            To better understand the difference between LOS and VLOS, let's consider an example. If you walk outside and look into the sky, you have line of sight to various (e.g., GPS) satellites overhead, but you don't have visual line of sight to them because of their distance. Given a powerful enough device such as a telescope you theoretically might be able to see one, but even then you wouldn't have met the requirement of being able to see it with vision "unaided by any device other than corrective lenses". In other words, VLOS is much more restrictive than LOS: VLOS requires that you be able to actually see something with your own (possibly corrected) vision, while LOS only requires an unobstructed path between your eyes and some object, and it's the more restrictive VLOS to your drone that the FAA requires you to maintain during flight.

            Most of the rest of the FAA's regulations are easily understood with perhaps a couple of exceptions, such as the requirement to fly only during the day or civil twilight. "Civil twilight" in this case means the 30 minutes prior to sunrise and the 30 minutes after sunset, though to fly during civil twilight your drone must be equipped with lights visible at least 3 nautical miles away.

            Finally, yielding the right of way to manned aircraft means that you must "give way" (yield) to them, "not pass over, under, or ahead of [one] unless well clear", and stay far enough away from them to avoid creating a collision hazard. In other words, keep your drone far from manned aircraft and keep it out of their path.

            One final point that should be made is that the FAA clarifies on its web site that the regulations in the above list are "subject to waiver". What this means is that you can submit an application to the FAA asking that a specific regulation be waived under certain conditions. For example, if you wish to perform aerial photography at night, you can request a waiver for night operation, and if it's granted you'll be able allowed to perform those flights. Be aware however, that waivers can — and usually do — take 90 days to be granted, and even if one is granted it will come with conditions. For example, a waiver granted for nighttime operation will only come with the provision that when flown at night your drone must be equipped with anti-collision lights that can be seen from three miles away.

            A detailed description of the waiver process is another topic that's beyond the scope of this guide, but the FAA provides information on its web site, and you can apply for a waiver online using the FAADroneZone web site. In fact, you'll need to already be familiar with that web site before you fly, and we'll see why in the next section of this guide.

Remote Pilot Responsibilities

 

The regulations just discussed are all related to what you can and can't do while flying, but there are other requirements related to pilot responsibilities, some of which you need to fulfill before ever taking off even if you've already received your 107 certification.

Pilot Registration

 

Before you fly as a 107 pilot, you must register both yourself and your drone with the FAA, which can be done through the FAADroneZone web site. Note that registration is required for both recreational and 107 pilots, and you need to register for both if you plan to fly recreationally and non-recreationally. In other words, even if you've already registered as a drone owner for recreational use and received your 107 certification, you must complete a separate online registration to fly as a 107 pilot, and — unlike recreational users — you must register the specific drone(s) you plan to use during 107 flights.

            As of this writing, you can access the 107 registration page of the DroneZone web site by clicking on the "Part 107 Dashboard" tab (see Figure 3), which displays a different set of information and options from the "Section 336 Dashboard" provided for recreational pilots. On that note, keep in mind that being a certified 107 pilot doesn't prevent you from flying recreationally under Section 336 rules. It's the intent of each flight that determines which regulations (recreational / Section 336 or non-recreational / Part 107) are applicable, and you have to follow the regulations appropriate for the flight.

 

Figure 3: Part 107 Dashboard on FAADroneZone

Drone Registration

 

Once you've completed your personal registration you'll also need to register the drone(s) you plan to fly using your 107 certification. That's done by adding them to your inventory on the DroneZone web site (see Figure 4), which will require you to specify whether each drone is "Purchased" or "Home Built" and to enter a nickname, manufacturer, model, and serial number (if applicable). The registration costs $5 for each drone you register and is valid for three years, after which you'll be required to register it again.

 

Figure 4: Adding a UAS to Your DroneZone Inventory.

           

            The web site also allows you to remove a previously registered drone from your inventory, which you should do if a drone you previously registered is destroyed, sold, or will otherwise no longer be used for 107 flights.

Labeling

 

When you've completed the registration for a drone, you'll receive an email with a "Small UAS Certificate of Registration" attachment that includes a certificate number that begins with "FA". Before using the drone for a 107 flight you must first label it with the certificate number that was issued for it, and the FAA specifies that labeling can be done in one of three ways: by engraving, permanent label, or with a permanent marker. The labeling must be done in a place that's visible, which in practice means the outside of the drone, but the FAA also does permit it to be done in the aircraft's battery compartment if that compartment can be accessed without using a tool.

Other Responsibilities

 

As with a driver's license for a vehicle, it isn't enough just to have a 107 certification or to have your drone registered: you must have your remote pilot certification and the drone's certificate of registration with you when you fly.

            You're also required to perform a preflight check of the drone before each flight to make sure that it's safe to fly. The FAA doesn't dictate specific preflight checklist items, but for a quadcopter this should include things like ensuring that all propellers are in good condition and that you aren't experiencing any problems with the link between aircraft and it's remote.

            Accidents can occur regardless of how safely you attempt to fly, and the FAA requires you to file a report under certain conditions. Specifically, you must report to the FAA within 10 days any accident that cause either or both of the following:

·       Serious injury to a person or loss of consciousness.

·       Total loss or property valued at $500 or more, or repairs costing at least $500.

            As with registration and waiver applications, accident reporting can be done through the same FAADroneZone web site using the "Part 107 Accident Reports" button.

            Finally, keep in mind that although your 107 certification doesn't technically expire, it's only valid for two years. To continue flying, you can extend the validity of your certification for another two years by taking and passing the FAA's recurring knowledge test. Remember this and when the two-year anniversary of your initial certification or renewal approaches, be sure to complete the required steps if you intend to continue operating as a remote pilot.

Summary

 

We've now covered why the Part 107 certification exists, who can be certified, what's required to achieve certification, and what you can and can't do once certified. If the amount of knowledge involved seems intimidating, be aware that the FAA reports pass rates of around 90% for the remote pilot examination. In fact, between August 2016 when the 107 certification first became available and the end of that year, the FAA issued more than 20,000 remote pilot certifications, and almost 50,000 more pilots were reported as certified in 2017 alone. So while it's true that there is a lot of information that must be learned, remember that many other people before you have been successful at doing just that.

            Flying drones professionally represents a fun and potentially profitable activity, and hopefully this guide has encouraged you to pursue a 107 certification so you can become a part of the professional remote pilot community.

 

Copyright © 2018 T. Brett Spell