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When Do I Need a Certificate?

A Look at Hobbyist vs. Commercial Requirements for small UAS

By James Williams

Last year (2016), the FAA launched its long awaited Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) regulations with the new Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 107. The immediate response from the UAS (more popularly called drone) community was: Do I need a part 107 Remote Pilot certificate for my operation? For the majority of us, the answer was: it depends, but probably no. For others, the answer is a clear yes. Here is a quick look at when you need a certificate and when you don’t. We will also offer some tips for each type of operation.

Just For Fun

For the majority of those who fly drones as a hobby, part 107 doesn’t change anything. You need to meet the applicability of part 101 and follow the basic guidelines outlined below, but as long as you don’t want compensation (compensation is a complex issue — for more information see the article referenced later) and can meet the guidelines, no certificate is required.

The basic guidelines state that you:

  • Register your UAS
  • Always keep your UAS within sight
  • Fly at or below 400 feet AGL (or higher if permitted by approved, community-based model club guidelines)
  • Never fly near other aircraft, especially around airports
  • Never fly over people
  • Never fly over stadiums or sports events
  • Never fly near emergency response events
  • Never fly under the influence
  • Always be aware of surrounding airspace and airspace requirements

For further advice on flying for fun, we turn to Ken Kelley, the FAA Safety Team’s (FAASTeam) Lead for UAS Outreach. “The most common mistake we see with new, small UAS (sUAS) users is that they get their new sUAS, charge it up, and go fly without knowing if they are near an airport or what the regulations and local statutes say about sUAS flights,” Kelley explains. “Another issue is that all sUAS must be registered with the FAA prior to any outside flight operations. This is why I always recommend that people just starting out first go straight to, then try to locate a local model aircraft or UAS club in their area,” Kelley says. This is more than just good advice. If you’re a hobbyist and not operating under part 107, Federal law requires you to operate within the safety guidelines of nationwide community-based organization. Kelley also notes that these clubs can be a great resource since they are familiar with both model aircraft/UAS operations and your local area. “They can point you toward good flying spots, make suggestions that could improve your skills, and tell you where you shouldn’t be flying to avoid trouble.” It’s important to remember that regardless of whether you hold a remote pilot airman certificate or not, you’re still a pilot operating in the National Airspace System (NAS) and that comes with important responsibilities.

UAS requirements

So What’s the Big Deal with 107?

Part 107 really is a pretty big deal. While you can operate under part 101 or part 107 as a hobbyist, compensation is one of the bright lines that kicks you out of the hobbyist category altogether and almost exclusively into part 107. But more generally, anything that takes the purpose of your flight from fun or hobby to “a job” could put you into part 107 even if there is no direct compensation. Before part 107, compensation or any kind of work resulted in a number of implications and challenges, including the need for an exemption to several FAA regulations. This led to a significant number of people looking to skirt these regulations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I saw statements like the following in online communities:

“It’s legal to sell your drone photos without an exemption if you just charge your client for the CD/USB drive, and not the photos.”

No, it’s not.

The FAA has spent considerable time and effort defining compensation, so agency attorneys are very familiar with the methods used as work-arounds. For a more in-depth discussion of compensation and specifically how it affects non-commercial pilots, see the article “Come Fly with Me ...” in the Sep/Oct 2010 issue of FAA Safety Briefing.

With part 107, though, there is a clear and relatively easy path to operating a small UAS for compensation or hire without the need to go through the exemption process. Here are the basic rules for operating under part 107:

  • Must hold a remote pilot certificate
  • Drone must be less than 55 pounds and registered
  • Must not operate within Class B, C, D, or surface level E airspace
  • Must keep aircraft in sight (visual line-of-sight)
  • Must fly under 400 feet or within 400 feet of a structure
  • Must fly during the day
  • Must fly at or below 100 mph
  • Must yield right of way to manned aircraft
  • Must not fly over people
  • Must not fly from a moving vehicle

If this list looks familiar, that’s no accident. Just as with the hobbyist guidelines, these rules allow reasonable freedom of operations without compromising the safety of the NAS or requiring permission from the FAA in the form of an exemption.

When is Part 107 Insufficient?

Part 107 was always intended as a starting point, designed to allow as much as possible without compromising safety. In the longer term, the plan is to expand what is possible through full integration of UAS into the NAS. In the short term, though, the FAA established a part 107 waiver team to receive applications from operators to allow safe operations under specific conditions when a part 107 regulation is waived. When evaluating a waiver application, the FAA considers the specific operation, operator, and circumstances. This approach makes it possible to allow operations that would otherwise contravene the regulations. Here are the sections of part 107 that may be waived:

  • Operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft (§ 10 7. 2 5) *
  • Daylight operation (§ 107.29)
  • Visual line of sight aircraft operation (§ 10 7. 31) *
  • Visual observer (§ 107.33)
  • Operation of multiple small unmanned aircraft systems (§ 107.35)
  • Yielding the right of way (§ 107.37(a))
  • Operation over people (§ 107.39)
  • Operation in certain airspace (§ 107.41)
  • Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraf t (§ 107.51)

*No waiver of this provision will be issued to allow the carriage of property of another by aircraft for compensation or hire.

As long as the FAA determines that the operations listed above can be conducted safely, the agency can issue a Certificate of Waiver for that operation. As an example, let’s say you have a client who wants aerial photos of a property at night. Section 107.29 does not permit this operation, but it may be possible to accommodate the operation under specific conditions (i.e., conduct some training on nighttime illusions, have an anticollision light installed, etc.).

When you are considering applying for a waiver, you need to remember that some sections of part 107 are not waivable. It is possible that there may be other solutions to allow your operation such as an authorization. But you need to ask, not guess.

When Does It Apply to Me?

Even if you are not receiving compensation, a hobbyist may still find it useful to have a remote pilot certificate. If a friend offers a few bucks for you to take some pictures of his house, you don’t have to worry about it. Or if another friend wants to compensate your drone-facilitated inspection of her home’s roof with a nice dinner out, you won’t have to decline. If you decide you want to use your UAS in your business, no problem.

It’s never a bad idea to expand your knowledge and your aviation repertoire, and the remote pilot certificate is a pretty easy way to do that and perhaps enjoy the bragging rights that come with any new certificate or rating.

Or, you could just follow the lead of famous mountaineer George Mallory, who chose to climb Mount Everest “because it’s there.”

Do you need a certificate for UAS

James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.

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