Commercial sUAS (Drone) Operation Keeps Getting Easier (Part 2)

In Part 1, I covered how FAA regulation has evolved for commercial drone activity, and how challenges have improved it over time. The latest thing was a greatly improved way of staying current on sUAS/Drone operating rules: online training for renewing (the FAA calls this “currency,” or staying current). This can be done at home every 24 months, and is a LOT easier than going to a testing center. Plus, it’s free, so that’s definitely better.

What The Training Is Like (Continued)

Another great thing the training covered was the new rules for flying over people. Normally, you’re not supposed to fly over people at all unless they’re part of your crew or otherwise very directly involved with your flight. That way, if something goes wrong and your UAS falls from the sky, the general public doesn’t pay the price. Now, the rules allow very light sUAS (under 0.55 pounds or 250 grams) without exposed rotating parts (like propellers) that can cut someone. These require no special paperwork or certification. Heavier sUAS can do this too, but only if you jump through some safety hoops. I won’t describe all of that here.

They also make it clear that you can’t continuously fly over moving vehicles. Why? Because nobody wants to have a quadcopter come through their windshields if it were to come down on their hood when they’re going down the highway. To do this, you have to have a UAS that meets the requirements for going over people, and either operate on a closed site or not linger over the top of moving vehicles (pass over quickly).

These new rules are going to require either coming up with a very light quadcopter or getting one certified to meet the requirements at heavier weights (and this will probably require a parachute), but the fact that these operations will be legally permissible at all is going to make for a big improvement in the ability to do work and make art (or both) as a remote pilot.

The Test

After getting some sleep (and having a bunch of weird dreams about drone laws), I went on to the course review to prepare for the test. The review was very, very basic. It was just a wall of text with the answers to many of the questions. I’ll tell readers the same thing I told the FAA in the feedback section after the test: it really needs some photos and/or videos to make it more visually appealing and, more importantly, to aid visual learners in the review process.

The test itself was only 45 questions, all multiple choice. I won’t give people the answers here, but my advice to anyone taking it really boils down to one thing: be careful to read the whole question before giving an answer. I would imagine doing the course and the test in one sitting would make it all easier to remember, but I was able to pass it even though I took the test the next day.

Once the test is over, they ask you a few questions about how the course went. I’m glad to see that the FAA is seeking our feedback to further improve the course, and hope they do keep improving it over time.

Finally, you get a link to download your certificate of completion. The certificate PDF file comes with both a printer-sized version (8.5×11″) and a smaller one you can cut out, laminate, and put in your wallet next to your FAA airman certificate card. Personally, I didn’t print it out because you’re allowed to show proof of currency electronically, but I am keeping it ready to go in my phone and other mobile devices.

I took this opportunity to go through all of my paperwork and make sure I have everything current in case I need to prove anything to anybody. I noticed that my airman certificate (the plastic wallet card) had an old address. I had updated my address as required by the rules, but I wanted to make sure having plastic with an old address is OK. It turns out, it’s like a driver’s license. Changing address doesn’t require a new card as long as you give the FAA your new address (more information on that here).

How Much Easier This All Is

The last time I took the in-person test, the nearest open FAA testing center was 60 miles from home. I had to spend an hour driving, sign in, take the test, get my certificate from the testing people, go charge my LEAF, and drive home. Add in time getting ready to go, and we’re talking about half a day. And, it’s important to keep in mind that this didn’t include study time preparing for the test (the FAA estimates this should take around 20 hours).

Obviously, you aren’t going to spend another 20 hours studying when much of the test was a review, but even if you only were to spend 3 hours studying, you’re still tying up almost a workday to stay current. Now? You can literally take the course and test from home in your underwear. This reduces the total time down to 2-3 hours for most people I’ve seen talking about this online.

On top of the convenience of testing, the convenience of operations has also improved. Night-time operations no longer require a waiver (which was a bit of a pain). Now, being current on your training and using anti-collision (usually a strobe) lighting is sufficient. The training itself had been shown to mitigate the dangers, so the FAA did the right thing and simplified the process.

Also, the information about operating over people and moving vehicles is going to be very useful for some operations. While larger sUAS is probably going to require parachutes to mitigate the dangers, the sub-250 gram category can probably already be served under current rules by using a DJI Mini (as long as you don’t sustain flight over open-air assemblies, which will require a software update to allow Remote ID capability).

In sum, the important thing here is that the barriers to using an sUAS (or drone) for work are continuing to get easier. Staying current is a big improvement, but being able to fly at night, over people, and over moving vehicles is also a great help for many operators. This is going to be a great thing for the industry, the environment, and the lives that will be saved.



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