Do you need a license to fly a drone?
If you live in the U.S. and you plan to fly your drone to make money then the answer is yes.
On the other hand, if you only plan to fly for fun then you don’t need any kind of license or certificate to fly your drone—yet.
The FAA has announced plans to release a knowledge test for recreational drone pilots, which will be required once it is out. Once the test has been released, there will probably be some kind of accompanying license or certificate that recreational drone pilots will need to have with them to show they’ve passed.
[Do you need a license to fly a drone outside of the U.S.? Check out our Master List of Drone Laws for licensing requirements throughout the world.]
What Is a Drone License?
A drone license is a certificate from the FAA that is legally required for conducting commercial drone operations in the U.S.
The formal name for this license is a Remote Pilot Airman’s Certificate—we’ll get into how you can get one in just a moment, but first let’s take things from the top and briefly cover the distinction between commercial and recreational drone operations.
Q: Do you need a drone license to fly a drone?
A: If you’re flying for work, yes you do. Here’s what a drone license looks like:
Want a little more information on commercial vs. recreational drone operations?
You got it. Here’s a chart from the FAA to help you further distinguish between commercial and recreational drone operations so you can answer the question, Do you need a license to fly a drone? for yourself based on what you’re planning to do with your drone.
Two Different Sets of Regulations
Historically, the reason commercial drone pilots need a license to fly a drone and recreational pilots don’t need one is because these two categories were governed by different regulations.
Up until 2018, commercial drone pilots have operated under the FAA’s Part 107 rules while recreational drone pilots have operated under the FAA’s Special Rule for Model Aircraft, also known as Section 336.
But all this will soon change.
In the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, Section 336 was repealed. This repeal means that the FAA is no longer restrained by law from imposing rules on recreational drone pilots, as was previously the case.
Since the repeal, the FAA has implemented new rules for recreational drone pilots. Below, in the section on rules for recreational drone pilots, we’ll cover the specific changes that have been made, as well as changes that the FAA says will be rolled out in the near future.
In addition to information on rules for recreational drone pilots, this article also provides an overview of the rules for commercial drone pilots, an exception to these rules, and a little history about where the drone license comes from.
Want to jump around? Here you go:
- Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone—Commercial Drone Pilot Rules
- Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone—Recreational Drone Pilot Rules
- Do You Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone—The Only Exception to the Rule
- Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone—A Short History of the Drone License
Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone—Commercial Drone Pilot Rules
As noted above, a commercial drone operation is any drone mission flown for work. Even if you’re only being paid as part of a barter agreement, you’re still flying commercially.
Commercial drone pilots must follow the FAA’s Part 107 rules, which include the following requirements:
- Drones used for commercial operations must weigh less than 55 pounds
- Drones cannot be flown at night, over people, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), or from a moving vehicle without a waiver
- Drones cannot be flown in controlled airspace without prior authorization
- All commercial drone pilots must hold a Remote Pilot Airman’s Certificate (also called a drone license in this article)
How Do You Get a Drone License from the FAA?
To get a drone license from the FAA you must meet these requirements:
- Pass the Aeronautical Knowledge Test (also called the Part 107 test) at one of around 700 FAA-approved knowledge testing centers across the United States.
- Apply for and obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate with a small UAS rating (also called a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate).
- Pass a background check by the Transportation Security Administration (this vetting happens automatically during your application process).
- Pass a recurrent Aeronautical Knowledge Test every 24 months.
- Be at least 16 years old.
- Make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required by the Part 107 rules.
- Report an accident to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in injury or property damage over $500.
- Conduct a preflight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is safe for operation.
Of all the requirements listed above for obtaining a drone license, the first one—the requirement to pass the Aeronautical Knowledge Test—is by far the most difficult.
The test covers a lot of knowledge and requires several hours of studying. Based on the information our students have shared over the years, we estimate it takes most drone pilots between 15 and 20 hours of preparation to be ready to take the test.
The FAA’s Aeronautical Knowledge Test
Here’s a little more information about the FAA’s Part 107 test:
- The test contains 60 multiple-choice questions.
- The minimum passing score is 70% (meaning, you’ll need to get at least 42 questions out of 60 right to pass).
- Each multiple-choice question has three possible answers.
- Each test question is independent of other questions—a correct response to one does not depend upon, or influence, the correct response to another.
- The test has a two-hour time limit.
- Some questions may require visual references, like airspace maps or charts.
Topics covered on the test include:
- Radio communications
- Map and chart reading
- Drone performance
And finally, here is a breakdown of emphasis on different topics included in the test, provided by the FAA:
Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone—Recreational Drone Pilot Rules
Since the repeal of Section 336 went through last year the FAA has steadily rolled out new requirements for recreational drone pilots, making an answer to the question Do you need a license to fly a drone? a little more complicated than it used to be for recreational flyers.
As of the writing of this article, here are the rules the FAA has instituted regarding recreational drone operations:
- Airspace authorization. Recreational drone pilots must now request airspace authorization before flying near an airport. Previously, hobbyist pilots could simply call the airport and the ATC to let them know they were planning to fly.
- Follow Part 107 rules. The FAA has not explicitly said that recreational pilots must follow the Part 107 rules, but all of their new rules for recreational pilots line up with the Part 107 rules. Recreational pilots must fly below 400 feet, within their visual line of sight, not over groups of people, and not in controlled airspace (without prior authorization)—for more information, see the new rules on the FAA’s website.
- Registration is required. Recreational drone pilots must register their drones and label them with their registration number. Learn more about drone registration on the FAA’s website.
The final two steps that are pending from the FAA are to implement a knowledge test for recreational drone pilots and to issue criteria for how it will recognize community based organizations (CBOs), which are organizations whose rules recreational drone pilots must follow (recreational pilots can choose which CBO’s rules they want to follow once the FAA issues its CBO criteria).
From the FAA website:
Once the recreational knowledge test is rolled out, the answer to the question Do you need a license to fly a drone? will almost certainly just be YES, regardless of the type of flying you plan to do.
Want to learn more about hobbyist drone requirements? Visit this page devoted to recreational drone operations on the FAA’s website.
Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone—The Only Exception to the Rule
The only exception to the licensing requirements for commercial drone pilots is for commercial drone pilots who are already licensed to fly manned aircraft.
If you are a licensed helicopter or airplane pilot, this section is for you. If not, skip ahead.
Here’s what you need to know:
- If you hold a manned pilot certificate issued under 14 CFR Part 61 and you have completed a flight review in the last 24 months, you do not need to obtain a Part 107 certificate to fly a drone commercially.
- Instead, you may fly drones commercially with your Part 61 certificate.
- However, you do need to complete a free online training called “Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) ALC-451” on the FAA FAASTeam website.
- After completing the course you must fill out FAA Form 8710-13 (FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application for a remote pilot certificate), validate your applicant identity, and make an in-person appointment with your local FSDO, an FAA-designated pilot examiner (DPE), an airman certification representative (ACR), or an FAA-certificated flight instructor (CFI) to sign your form
Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone—A Short History of the Drone License
The drone license requirement for commercial drone pilots first came into effect when the FAA implemented the Part 107 rules in August of 2016.
Here is a short timeline tracking the development of drone regulations in the U.S., starting with the time when the FAA defined UAS as aircraft and ending in the present day.
- September, 2005. FAA releases memorandum AFS-400 UAS Policy 05-01 with guidelines for the usage of UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS). These guidelines only allow for the use of drones for commercial operations with a special airworthiness certificate, which could only be used for experimental purposes and are almost impossible to obtain. At this point, the use of drones for commercial operations is effectively banned.
- February, 2007. FAA releases a policy document stating that drones fall under the definition of aircraft. Shortly after, on February 13, the FAA issues a policy statement concerning the operation of drones and clarifying the distinction between a UAV and a model aircraft (an important distinction, since there were two different sets of rules for commercial and recreational drone use).
- February, 2012. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 sets a deadline of September 30, 2015, for the agency to establish regulations to allow for the use of commercial drones. The Act also clearly makes commercial drone operations illegal.
- March, 2014. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) judge Patrick Geraghty finds that the FAA had not followed the proper rulemaking procedures in the rules it established for drones and that, therefore, the FAA’s blanket ban on commercial drone operations is not legal.
- May, 2015. FAA launches the Pathfinder Program to research commercial drone applications in partnership with private companies.
- August, 2016. The FAA announces the official implementation of the Part 107 rules for commercial drone operators. These rules include the requirement for all commercial drone operators to obtain a drone license, or certificate, from the FAA certifying them to operate a drone for commercial purposes.
As you can see, it’s been a long journey.
We’ve gone from not being able to fly drones for commercial purposes at all to being able to say, yes, you do need a license to fly a drone—and that is a good thing.