Commercial sUAS (Drone) Operation Keeps Getting Easier

When quadcopters with cameras vastly improved in the late 2000s and early 2010s, US regulators and many other governments around the world got caught with their shorts down. Smartphones drove the cost of sensors and components down, and then cheaper sensors, better wireless transmission technology, and mobile devices that could give you a live bird’s eye view suddenly made it very easy and safe to remotely operate a small aircraft. This proved to not only be useful for taking pretty pictures, but also gave a number of industries and governmental efforts to make their work easier, and more importantly, save lives.

The environmental benefits of sUAS (commonly known as drones, even if that is a bad term for what they really are) are incalculable. Yes, many things drone pilots do just wouldn’t happen if manned aircraft had to be used instead. For example, a real estate agent isn’t going to shell out the big bucks for a plane or helicopter unless it’s an unusually expensive house. But they’re still replacing manned aircraft and their fossil fuel emissions with a relatively tiny electric aircraft in many cases, and it’s a growing phenomenon.

In other words, electric-powered aviation is already here.

Taming The Wild West

When lower cost unmanned aircraft came on the scene, US law on the matter wasn’t that clear. The FAA tried to require everyone using a drone commercially to get a regular pilot’s license or jump through a bunch of other expensive and difficult hoops, but they were mostly ignored. Then, they lost in court when they temporarily attempted to enforce their expansive interpretation of the law, and the law on operating drones became a very “wild west.”

The popularity of drones, a large community of unlicensed commercial drone users, and the legal gray area put federal regulators in a position where they couldn’t create rules that were difficult to follow. If they did do that, they’d only push commercial drone operators to just keep doing what they were doing, and many of them would probably have banded together to take the FAA to court endlessly. So, they had to come up with a process to improve drone safety, but also make it easy for drone operators to comply with the rules.

The result of this challenge was actually a pretty decent set of regulations (as far as US federal regulations go). In 2016, they opened up the process to take a test at a local testing center, apply for a license, get a background check, and then become a legitimate operator. They didn’t require a specific training course, leaving it up to the applicant whether they wanted to sign up for a commercial test-prep program or self-study.

To stay current, a drone pilot needed to take the test again every two years, giving the FAA an opportunity to update pilots on new policies and laws via test study.

Then Cam The Pandemic

This licensing and knowledge testing system was pretty good, but it had one downside: relying on in-person testing at authorized testing centers. This was fine until the pandemic struck. Pandemic lockdowns, closing of “non-essential” businesses, and the direct threats of the virus itself threw the testing system into disarray. In response, the FAA used their emergency powers to issue a special regulation, which included extensions of the two-year retesting requirement if remote pilots took an online training to stay current instead.

Having seen the weakness in the system, the FAA went ahead with plans to get rid of the retesting requirement and replace it with online training entirely. New pilots would still have to go to a testing center with a photo ID to prove their identity, but that’s something you’d only have to do one time. So, whether there’s a pandemic or not, sUAS pilots now have a much easier time staying up to date and legal.

What The Course Is Like

I took my last in-person test in 2020. Fortunately, I was able to find a testing center in El Paso that wasn’t closed down, and that test covered me for the rest of the pandemic. Now that it’s 2022, I’m up for a renewal of my training and needed to take the new FAA online course for drone-only pilots (if you’re a manned aircraft pilot, your test is here for sUAS renewals and here for a new sUAS certification). The courses are tailored to a remote pilot’s background, because the FAA is already testing you on many areas of knowledge if you’re already a normal aviation pilot.

Once I was logged in and had updated all of my information in the profile (including linking the FAASafety.gov account to my remote pilot certification) it was pretty easy to enroll in the course and get started. It wasn’t that different from online training I’ve seen before, such as those provided by FEMA for emergencies or the Maryland State Police for gun safety. You watch short videos, read, look at photos, charts, and graphics, and take short quizzes as you go along.

Most of the information was things I already learned for prior in-person testing. Regulations, registration, safety considerations, and such were basically a review. There were a few new things, though.

One new thing was the Remote ID rule. I like to stay up to date on the rules and follow them, so I already knew about this rule, but now I was seeing it as part of a training and test. The rule takes effect in 2023, and requires drones to transmit an ID and some telemetry data for enforcement purposes. My DJI gear doesn’t do this yet, but will likely be able to do so later with a firmware update. The FAA is including it in today’s training because people taking it now will still be considered current next year, so they have to cover it now.

Night operations was another new topic. I have an FAA waiver for night that required much of the same information that was presented here to be studied, but now all remote pilots will have the same training to stay current, meaning that night waivers aren’t going to be needed once someone gets the new training or takes their in-person test for a new certification.

In Part 2, I’m going to cover a couple more new things the training had, how the test went, and how the whole process makes it easier to protect people and the environment with drones.


 


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