Getting a drone pilot license

How to go about flying a drone legally and safely, and what it should cost to get properly licensed.
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Getting your drone pilot license can be a bit confusing. The phrases “Remote Pilot” and “Part 107” and “Unmanned air vehicle” get thrown around quite often when all you really want is the gist on being able to legally fly a drone.

I obtained my drone license while I was studying for my private pilot license, so that gave me the chance to understand the process from a bit of a different angle, no pun intended.

Here’s what you need to know about legally flying a drone…in 5 minutes.

Step 1: Download this App

Before getting your license I recommend downloading Airmap. This app will show you where you are legally able to fly, and more importantly, where an FAA Part 107 Drone License would benefit you.

More on that below.

Do you need a pilot license to fly a drone?

Sample ID Card you will receive when passing your drone pilot's license exam
An example of what the front side of your Pilot ID Card will look like when you pass the drone pilot exam. You need to carry this card on you while flying a drone as pilot in command at all times.

Yes, unless you’re flying a drone for recreational purposes, you need a pilot license. No, this pilot license isn’t the same thing as what an airline pilot holds. Technically, a pilot license is called a certificate and certificates have different ratings.

A drone pilot is someone with a Remote pilot certificate (a.k.a. a license) with an unmanned air system rating.

Are you making money?

If you’re buying a drone to have fun in your backyard and are flying under 400 feet, you don’t need a license. If it’s for any other purpose, you’re flying a drone as a Remote Pilot under Part 107 of the FAA Air Regulations, which means it’s a commercial operation.

Remember as a drone pilot you are:

  • A Remote Pilot certified by the FAA
  • Rated (certified to only fly) a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (e.g. a drone)

The operation you perform as a commercial remote pilot while doing this is allowed under Part 107 of the FAA commercial operations.

Where you can fly a drone

An example of what a location looks like on the drone pilot resource Airmap. The dot in the center of the screen is near downtown Los Angeles. The blue areas require FAA Approval at all times. The red area on the left is a no fly zone as it represents a National Park. The red zones to the right are a temporary flight restricted zone due to fires.

The best resource for knowing whether or not you can fly a drone in a certain area is the app Airmap mentioned above or Know Before You Fly. Type in the location where you’ll be flying and the do not fly zones will come up.

Taking the drone pilot license exam

So with a better understanding of where you can legally pilot a drone and overall whether the test is something you need to take, here’s what you should know about the actual exam.

Sign up for the Unmanned Aircraft General (Small UAG) EXAM

Drone Pilot. FAA Part 107. Unnamed Air Vehicle. Remote Pilot. Ratings. Remember that all of these terms are synonymous with becoming a drone pilot and taking the exam. When you register for the drone pilot exam, the name of the test you’re signing up for is this:

Unmanned Aircraft General (Small UAG) EXAM

The test is conducted by an FAA testing partner called PSI.

  1. You register an account with PSI
  2. Find a testing center near you
  3. Select the Small UAG Exam
  4. Eat a balanced breakfast and show up and test

What does the license cost?

Every FAA Exam costs $160 (when you sign up through the testing site PSI, it says $90+$70). There are a number of study guides that cost upwards of $250-$300 (I give my recommendation below), so all told, expect to spend anywhere from $200-$400 to get your license.

One thing people ignore is that FAA testing centers can be a far distance from some people. Choosing a time that is sooner rather than later will also limit your options. Factor in you may be traveling 20-40 miles if you don’t live in a major city, this alone can cost an additional $20-$30 depending on how you want to log it.

Do you need an endorsement to take the drone pilot exam?

Great question. Many FAA exams require that a Certified Flight Instructor or an online study course sign you off to take the test. An endorsement indicates that you possess sufficient knowledge to take an exam about becoming a pilot. The Drone Pilot Exam does NOT require an endorsement. I’d go so far as to say that possessing an aptitude with flying a drone is not a requirement in any capacity. You sign up online. Pay. And you’re free to pass or fail the exam.

…hopefully pass.

Is the Unmanned Aircraft General (Small UAG) EXAM hard?

What the sign-up page looks like for Gleim’s FAA Test Prep. This software is $60 and what I recommend to anyone looking to become a drone pilot.

The test is 60 multiple choice questions and requires a 70 to pass. It is conducted in a very small room without windows and as I mentioned above will usually be at an airport. Taking the exam is actually quite similar to the test to become a private pilot, with FAA Airspace guidelines and basic questions about weather patterns comprising the bulk of the questions.

That said, there are no surprises with the test. The questions and answers are public and if you study them for say 8-10 hours you shouldn’t have a problem passing.

The best self-study program

I mentioned some drone study programs or “academies” can cost as much as $300. I’m not familiar with these but I can’t imagine anyone needing to pay that much.

The service I use is Gleim (pronounced Gleem), which costs $60 and will put you through every single question and answer. It’s up to you to memorize them (I received a 97% … but I’ve also passed the Private Pilot Exam which is very similar).

Can you fly immediately after passing the UAS test?

Technically you can do anything you want to, but legally, no you can’t fly a drone until you have an FAA Airman Certificate. In fact, like any pilot, you must keep your Airman Certificate in your possession at all times while flying your drone. A Temporary Certificate is usually available online in about a day or two after you pass the test, which is applicable to show anyone who needs to see your FAA License (e.g. law enforcement).

Expect your actual Airman Certificate (it’s a card that basically looks like a driver’s license) to come in the mail 4 to 6 weeks later.

FT 550 Yeasu air to air airband radio
I highly recommend buying a radio with access to airband frequencies. The Yaesu FT550 radio above retails at $199 and is a solid option.

Register your drone

No matter your level of experience as a drone pilot, registering your drone is imperative. Drones can do crazy things like fly away or injure an individual—hence the requirement to have a certificate while flying one. A registration is akin to your drone having a license plate.

Final Minute

Flying a drone is a bit of a surreal experience. Capturing camera angles previously unimaginable to the amateur filmmaker is a powerful tool that comes with responsibilities. A drone is an unmanned aircraft susceptible to the dynamics of your flying environment, and if you don’t follow the rules can cause some serious damage. A drone pilot’s license might not directly improve your stick skills, but it will make you a safer pilot, giving you a better understanding and respect for aeronautics, weather, and open up more possibilities as to where you can (legally) fly.


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