Does a drone operator really need a pilot license? 6

Does a drone operator need a pilot license to fly the drone?

Update: I’ve edited some of this because most people are focusing more on the license requirement and not the lack of aeronautical knowledge some drone operators have.

My point: all drone operators, recreational and commercial, should have a clear understanding of the national airspace system. I’m not advocating for all commercial drone operations to be required to have a sport pilot, or higher, certificate.

Here are my thoughts.

The FAA believes they are statutorily not allowed to exempt individuals from the pilot certificate. The FAA did not write those statutes, Congress did and they didn’t change them. (Yes, there is a whole fun discussion we could have regarding the pilot license requirement being arbitrarily applied to commercial drone operators while not to model aircraft operators, but that is not what I’m focusing on here.)

I’m going to focus specifically on what skills are required for a commercial drone operator to operate safely in the national airspace system.

The typical response to the license requirement is “I’ve met many licensed pilots and they cannot fly a drone as well as me.”  Yes, a licensed pilot most likely cannot just pick up a drone and fly like you, but you could not even fly as good as you can now when you first started flying drones!  Furthermore, since we are comparing skills, let’s change the common objection slightly to “I’ve met many [model aircraft] pilots and they cannot fly a drone [in the NAS safely] as well as me.” Moreover, I acknowledge that some of the things required to obtain a sport, or higher, pilot certificate do not really in any way translate over to drone flying. Let’s fix this question.

Does a drone operator need to know about airspace and how to read a sectional to fly a drone in the national airspace system?

If you are a drone operator and don’t have a pilot license, how would you respond to that question? (Yes, I agree with you that if you fly your drone really low to the ground, you most likely aren’t going to cause many safety issues.)

Here are scenarios/questions, to provoke thought, for the non-licensed drone pilots wanting to operate in the national airspace system.

Pink X – A farmer wants you to take an aerial shot of his mango farm at 400ft. Can you fly here? What airspace are you in?

Green X – A cell tower company wants you to inspect their towers here. Can you do this operation? What is the height of the towers? Any airport problems? What airspace are you in?

Light Blue X – A construction development company (or real estate broker) wants you to take aerial shots at the altitude corresponding to the view the apartment at the new planned high rise would get. How high can you fly? Are there any potential problems here? What airspace are you in?

Small Red X – Let’s say someone hires you to inspect a commercial building’s roof here. Do you have to talk to anyone on the radio here? If so, who? What is the frequency? What is the big problem with operating here? How high can you fly? What airspace are you in?



Food for thought guys.

What makes a good commercial drone operator? Stick skills and knowing how to safely operate in the NAS. 🙂

Great Resources:


6 thoughts on “Does a drone operator really need a pilot license?

  • Nick Kershner

    I DID fly my UAS commercially until the big crackdown. I’ve been planning to get my pilots license but haven’t had time. That being said…

    Why aren’t we addressing this? They are two different types of flight. Most commercial drone operators don’t need to operate at high altitude, although it can be helpful SOMETIMES. The reality is most of us can do our jobs just fine without flying over 400ft. Why isn’t there a specific UAS course setup yet? Or a test? Instead of fighting to outlaw everything, why don’t we certify?

    Just like when I got my motorcycle license. It’s a different type of driving. I had to pass a special test – DIFFERENT – than the car test. Not more complicated or anything, just different. I was able to skip an on the road test by going to a private company and taking a motorcycle safety course.

    It seems to me, instead of continuing to fight about this all the time, why are we just looking for solutions? Politics politics, blah blah…. We don’t have enough time in our lives to peel that onion. Just seems to me that there is a simple solution that still gives us the safety we need and continues to create jobs with private certification companies and drone operators.

    Great piece, thanks for the conversation starter.

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