Do You Need A License To Fly A Drone

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Welcome to our blog. Lightwave Aerial provides professional drone services in aerial photo/video, mapping, and inspection. We’ve learned a lot building this business and we’re still learning.

My goal is to present drone technology in a way that’s easy to understand. Also, to give you the real-world practical business perspective we’re learning as we build our company.

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How do you know if you need a license to fly a drone? Since 2021 anyone who flies a drone must have some type of FAA license or certification. The penalties for violating the rules can be serious so you need to know what license you need and how to get it.

Professional drone flights require a part 107 remote pilot certificate. Since 2021, recreational drone flights require a TRUST certification. Flights for government or public entities may be covered under a Certificate of Authority (COA).

We’ll cover what you need to know about your drone pilot’s license and explain which one is right for you.

Do You Need A Drone Pilot License

Drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have become very popular. You need a drone pilot’s license, also called a remote pilot certificate, if you intend to fly a drone outside. The federal government controls all airspace in the US. The only place you can legally fly a drone without a pilot license or certification is if you’re flying indoors. Indoor space is not considered part of national airspace.

Indoor drone flight Title

Drone pilot licenses and certifications fall into several categories. One category is for commercial flights, another category is for recreational flights, in the last category is if you’re flying for federal or local governments.

If you’re getting paid to fly your drone then that is a commercial flight and you need a part 107 remote pilot certificate to fly your drone. If you are just flying for personal enjoyment or recreation then you will need to pass a basic certification test called the TRUST. This certification can also be used if your flights are serving an educational or academic purpose.

If you’re flying for a government organization then you have the additional option of flying under what’s called a certificate of authorization (COA). We’ll cover each of these options in detail.

What Type Of License Do You Need

There are a number of different types of drone pilots’ licenses and certifications. It’s important to know which one is right for you. And that is based on why you’re flying your drone.

For Commercial Drone Flights

If you receive any kind of compensation then that makes you a commercial drone pilot. Be aware that the FAA has a very liberal definition of compensation. If you fly a drone to take pictures of the house that you’re trying to sell, they consider that compensation. If you fly your drone with the intention of just having fun and end up at some point in the future selling the pictures you took. Surprise, you are now a commercial drone pilot.

Commercial drone pilots must obtain a remote pilot certificate. To get certified you must pass the part 107 aeronautical knowledge certification exam. The exam ensures that all professional drone pilots have a minimal knowledge of FAA rules and regulations for UAV.

Once you pass you will get a card indicating that you are a certified part 107 commercial drone pilot. For details on how to get your commercial pilot license see our article “How to Get Your Drone License: A Complete Guide”.

For Recreational Drone Flights

Flying a drone for recreation means that you receive no compensation of any kind. In this case, the FAA has created an exemption to the part 107 certification requirement. The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST). The test is free and online. Once you complete the test, the FAA will send you a certification. You should have this for all recreational drone flights.

image TRUST certification

For Educational Drone Flights

Flights intended for purely educational or academic purposes fall under the category of recreational flights. This is intended to support the education and development of drone personnel and drone technology. The requirements are the same as for recreational drone pilots.

For Public Drone Flights

If you fly for a government entity then, an alternative to the part 107 process, is to obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA). The FAA recommends that you get a commercial license, but they do allow public organizations to apply for limited flight authorizations under a COA.

The public organization needs to apply to the FAA for a COA. The process is rigorous and requires detailed justification for the flights. Also, the scope of the drone flights will be limited to specific areas, times, and activities.

Overall it’s easier to get a part 107 commercial license. We have found that COA’s are more often used for flights in restricted areas. We’ve encountered this number of times in Washington DC where a COA and a government sponsor are required for drone flights. For more details on this subject see our article “How To Fly A Drone in Restricted Airspace

image COA Application form

When Do You Need a Drone License

Recreational License

You need a TRUST certification before flying any recreational drone flight within US national air space. This means anywhere outdoors.

Commercial License

There are several specific scenarios where you need your part 107 drone license even for recreational flights

  • For flights in controlled airspace. These are areas managed by an air traffic control authority. Typically near airports.
  • For night flights (between dusk and dawn). Since 2021 the FAA no longer requires a special waiver for night flights. However, night flights are restricted to pilots with part 107 certification.
  • Flying over people. Since 2021 the FAA no longer requires a special waiver for flights of people, however, it is also restricted to part 107 certified pilots.

For more information on this flying at night see our article “Flying Your Drone At Night: The Complete Guide

image No-Fly map

License vs Registration

Obtaining your drone license or certification is only the first step to legally flying a drone. You also have to register your drone with the FAA. This can be done easily on the FAA website.

Registration is easy and only costs $5.

You’ll get a registration number for your drone. This number must be permanently displayed on the drone. We recommend using adhesive address labels and including your name and contact information along with the registration number.

Always keep your registration and license with you when operating your drone.

When Can You Fly Without a Drone License

There are two ways that you can fly a drone without a TRUST certification, Part 107 remote pilot certificate, or COA.

The way is to fly the drone indoors without any certification or license. The FAA does not regulate indoor space, so federal aviation regulations do not apply when flying a drone indoors.

Our opinion is that this rule will change in the near future. There is a lot of commercial work for indoor aerial photography using smaller drones. Flying a drone indoors is, in many ways, more hazardous than flying outdoors. It’s a confined space and you’re generally flying over people. So expect the FAA to address this discrepancy sometime soon.

The second way is to fly under the supervision of a certified pilot. This allows for the training and education of new pilots. In this case, the supervising pilot must be able to take over control of the unmanned aircraft at any time during the flight.

To operate the controls of a drone under Part 107, you need a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds such a certificate.

FAA Rules for UAS
image supervised drone flight

Who Is In Charge of Drone Licenses

The part 107 drone rules are administered by the federal aeronautics administration (FAA) which is part of the department of transportation. In addition, the TSA plays a role and helping to regulate the use of drones. These organizations control the pilot certification process, the mission waiver processes, and the enforcement processes.

image Dept of Transportation

The Process To Get a Drone License

You must meet the following requirements to become a drone pilot

1. Do you have to be at least 16-year-old.

2. Be of sound physical and mental condition to safely fly a drone.

3. You must be able to read write speak English fluently.

4. Pass the part 107 aeronautical knowledge test.

There are 4 steps to get your part 107 remote pilot certification

1. Obtain an FAA tracking number and create a profile you will use to register for the exam.

2. Take and pass the aeronautical knowledge test.

3. Complete the necessary forms for your remote pilot certification.

4. Complete the TSA security background check.

image 5-step process

Once the steps are completed you will receive your remote pilot license in the mail. It’s important to keep this with you whenever flying a drone. For details on how to get your Commercial pilot license see our article “How To Get Your Drone License”.

Where Can You Fly With Your License

US national air and space is mostly divided into two categories: controlled and uncontrolled airspace.

Uncontrolled Airspace

Uncontrolled airspace, also called class G air space, means that there’s no air traffic control authority. You may have some local or state laws that provide additional restrictions for flights on private property, but generally, it is an open-air space.

Controlled Airspace

Controlled airspace means that you have to apply for and get authorization to fly from the local air traffic control (ATC). This is done through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). Applications can be submitted using the ALOFT phone app and approval or denial is immediate. You can go online or you can get a phone app to determine the airspace restrictions for your location.

LAANC restricter flight areas

Restricted Airspace

Aside from these two categories, there are many restricted flight areas. These areas may be restricted due to military operations, government security, or public events. These areas require a special waiver and they’re only accessible to pilots with a part 107 commercial drone certification.

Lightwave Aerial serves the Northern Virginia and Washington DC area, so we are familiar with the restricted flight areas and the very complicated waiver process. See our article “How To Fly A Drone in Restricted Airspace

image restricted airspace

How High Can You Fly With Your License

You’re allowed to fly in uncontrolled airspace up to 400 feet AGL. If you have a commercial drone pilots license you can fly higher than that around certain structures or with a special waiver.

In controlled airspace, air traffic control will define maximum heights based on location. When you apply for LAANC flight authorization the application will tell you your maximum height.

How Far Can You Fly With Your License

One basic tenant of US drone regulations is that all pilots must maintain unaided visual line sight with the drone. If you want to extend this distance you can use a visual observer (VO) to help you, but you must remain in direct contact with your VO at all times.

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How Fast Can You Fly With Your License

Federal unmanned aircraft system regulations state that you cannot fly drones faster than 100 mph. This should never be a problem, I cannot envision an instance where I would ever fly a drone that fast.

Do I Need To Have My License When Operating A Drone

Whether you are flying recreationally or commercially. It is important to have your TRUST certification or your remote pilot certificate with you at all times during your flight. If law enforcement confronts you, you must be able to verify that your drone is registered and that you are certified to fly.

Also, having your drone pilot license readily displayed will give you an air of professionalism if you have a drone business. 

What Happens If I Fly Without a License

If you’re caught flying commercial missions without a drone license the FAA may start with a warning letter. However, they have been known to impose big money fines for 1st offenders. For repeated or severe violations the government can impose civil counties up to $32,666 per day. 

Our recommendation. Don’t take chances – get your drone license.

fine for breaking rules

What If I Have An Aircraft Pilot License

If you have a pilot’s license for manned aircraft, also called a part 61 license, you are still required to get part 107 certified. However, the FAA has provided a fast-track process.

If you’ve obtained your part 61 flight certification within the past 24 months, then you only need to complete online training. You do not need to pass the aeronautical knowledge test. You can find the training on the FAA website.

What If I Have A Foreign Pilot Drone License

Recreational flights

For recreational flights, the process is the same as for US recreational drone pilots. You must register your drone and complete the TRUST certification training on the FAA website.

Commercial Flights

The rules for commercial flights are a bit more complicated. If your drone is registered in your country of origin, then you must obtain a foreign aircraft permit from the FAA. This must be obtained 15 days before any flights. The process can take up to one month.

If your drone is not registered in your country of origin then contact the Department of Transportation (DOT) for details on how to apply for certification in the US.

If you’re from Canada or Mexico you may not have to follow this process. Because through NAFTA, the US has agreements with these countries that permit foreign pilots to fly drones in the US.

There’s a very long, very complicated document that outlines whether or not you were eligible. I recommend you simply call the DOT and explain your situation.

When Do I Need To Renew My Drone License

TRUST Certification

At this time the FAA has not defined any renewal time for the TRUST certification. Therefore, it appears recreational drone pilots do not need to renew. We recommend you check the FAA website periodically to see if the regulation changes.

Part 107 Certification

The Part 107 certification requires renewal after 24 months. You must retake and pass the aeronautical knowledge test in order to maintain your certification.

In conclusion, if you are considering using a drone for commercial purposes, it is important to get your drone license. This certification verifies that you are knowledgeable of aviation regulations and how they apply to drone operations. Ultimately, having your drone pilot certification is an important step toward becoming a responsible drone operator.

Lightwave Aerial is a professional drone service company based in Northern Virginia. Our pilots are all FAA Part-107 certified. We offer a full range of aerial photo/video production services, aerial mapping, and aerial inspection.

At Lightwave Aerial, we are dedicated to providing professional drone services that help our clients achieve their goals. Contact us today to find out more about how we can help you with your next construction project!  


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Picture of Felton Flood, PhD

Felton Flood, PhD

Dr. Flood has 25+ years experience in telecommunications and is a veteran of several startups in Silicon Valley and Northern Virginia. In 2021 he co-founded Lightwave Aerial, applying machine learning and cloud technologies to innovate UAV services.