Back in the bad old days, the only way to get aerial shots of anything was with complex cable setups, cranes and jibs, or even helicopters. Even before fuel was abominably expensive, helicopters weren’t cheap to hire. While big movie studios still use the above, smaller operations and even consumers now have access to aerial footage thanks to camera drones.
And even though the FAA has made it more difficult to use drones for commercial purposes, it’s still an exceptionally affordable way to put glass in the sky and get shots that would’ve been next to impossible just a few decades ago.
Getting a remote pilot certificate can be a stressful prospect for some, but it’s easier than you might think. And likely a LOT faster, too. In this article, I’ll show you how I got my remote pilot certificate in just 17 days with less than $500 and no prior experience—and how you can get yours even faster.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates unmanned aerial systems (UASs) through the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14, Chapter I, Subchapter F, Part 107. WOOF. That’s a mouthful. The contents of Part 107 are extensive, and you need to be well-versed in pretty much all of it in order to pass the knowledge test and get your certificate.
Beyond passing the knowledge test, you also need to be:
- At least 16 years old
- Able to read, speak, write and understand English, and
- In a physical and mental condition to safely fly a drone
If those three boxes are ticked, the only thing you need to worry about is the knowledge test.
Fortunately, there are a lot of options out there to get you ready to take this test. The requirements of Part 107 are clearly listed online, so if you wanted to, you could simply go through it line by line and do the research yourself. However, I’d encourage you to make things easy on yourself and purchase a course.
The one I used was Drone Pilot Ground School (not sponsored), and I had a great experience with it. It’s logically structured, comes with practice questions at the end of each module, and includes five practice tests that are basically what you’ll find on the actual exam.
There are plenty of alternatives, but whatever you pick, it’ll likely be in the area of $200-$300. While not explicitly necessary, the convenience is well worth the cost if you ask me.
Choose a course and plow through it. This is where most of your time will go, and where most of yours can be saved. I studied for an hour or two each day. If you study more, you can get your certificate a lot faster. But make sure you study well, not just quickly.
Take your time with the complicated stuff, like reading sectional charts, and be sure to research anything you don’t understand online. YouTube is a fantastic resource for things like this.
Once I was finished with all the lessons, I scheduled my test (see next section) and took practice tests included with my course in the days leading up to it. For some, it might be a better decision to wait until you’re 90% or better on the practice tests, but I felt pretty confident and wanted to make the most of my time so I could start working.
Taking the test
Once you feel you’re ready, it’s time to schedule your test. The test is given by private businesses on behalf of the FAA, and there are hundreds of them throughout the nation. Wherever you live, finding one nearby shouldn’t be particularly hard.
Scheduling your test
Unfortunately, you can’t call these businesses directly, as they’re not able to schedule a test for you over the phone. Everything has to go through the FAA website.
The FAA’s application platform is called the IACRA (Integrated Airmen Certificate and Rating Application system). Go to iacra.faa.gov and carefully navigate through the awful government design to obtain your FAA tracking number (FTN). At the time of this writing, the New User Guide is in a bright green box at the top. Read it. It’s your friend.
Up next, we have another terrible government website: PSI Exams. This is some sort of third party platform that the government uses to schedule these exams. Using the FTN you created through the IACRA, you’ll create a new account with them (currently the second button about halfway down the page).
Once you’re in, find a testing center near you. This actually is fairly straightforward. Just be triple-extra-sure that you sign up for the right test (Unmanned Aerial General – Small). Pick whichever date and time works best for you—they’re offered continuously, so finding a nearby test date generally isn’t difficult.
(Your ground school course will probably have a very specific guide to both of the above tasks).
Taking the test
On test day, show up with a photo ID. Driver’s license, state/military ID, passport, whatever. If the address on your ID is not your current physical address, you’ll have to bring them a utility bill or home/renter’s insurance statement with your name and address on it. Seriously, they’ll turn you away if you don’t have this.
If you’re not a US citizen, you’ll have to bring your passport AND another form of ID issued by a US government entity.
Apart from that, it’s a pretty standard multiple choice test. There are 60 questions and 3 options per question. Some of the questions reference graphics like sectional charts, which you’ll have with you in a booklet that the test provider will give you. Get REAL familiar with that booklet—it’s the same for everyone and the legend on the sectional chart will make your life a lot easier. You can find it at this URL.
Your test provider will show you your score immediately after you’re finished. They’ll give you your scoresheet and send you on your way—make sure you keep this.
Now head home and relax for a couple days, maybe 3. Your results may take up to 72 hours to finish processing.
Applying for your certificate
Guess what? Now you get to go back to the IACRA. Hooray.
Head back to the IACRA and log in. From the Applicant Console, click on ‘Start New Application’
Select ‘Pilot’ from the Application Type dropdown list.
Select ‘Remote Pilot – Initial’ in the Certifications section.
Click Start Application.
The application process is pretty straightforward as well. Answer any new questions truthfully and completely. Enter the test ID that you got from your test provider, then continue. Review your answers and submit them, and click on all 3 documents (the Pilots’ Bill of Rights, the privacy act, and a copy of your entire application). Once you’ve viewed them, you’ll be able to sign and complete the application.
After about a week (only 4 days in my case), they’ll send you an email telling you your temporary certificate is available. Log back in and download this. Print it and keep it with your drone whenever you’re flying. After a month or two, they’ll send your permanent certificate in the mail, and you’ll be good to go for two years until you need to renew your knowledge test.
Flying before you’re certified
Flying before you’re certified is legal, but only if you do so in a recreational capacity. Seriously—no business purposes while you’re flying. The FAA doesn’t mess around.
There are a few hoops to jump through before you’re allowed to fly recreationally too, but it can be done in an hour or less. All you have to do is pass a short test called TRUST (The Recreational UAS Safety Test). It takes about a half hour, and is also provided through a host of government-approved third parties. At least it’s free. See the URL above for more information.
Next, download the B4UFly app. This little beauty will detect your location and show it on a map, showing you any nearby airfields, restricted areas, or other types of controlled airspace. Without your Part 107 certificate, you’re only able to fly in uncontrolled airspace. If you live in the city or near an airport, you might have to travel a bit to find a safe place to practice, but this app will help you make it happen. You’ll probably use this app even when you’re certified.
Flying after you’re certified
Once you receive your temporary certificate, you’re…
STILL not ready to fly. But you’re close.
All you have to do now is register your drone. You’ll do this through the FAA Drone Zone. It costs $5 per drone and is good for three years. Once you’re registered, mark your registration code on the outside body of your drone.
Depending on your drone, you might have to worry about Remote ID. But the laws on that change frequently, so I won’t be covering that extensively in this article. Learn more about Remote ID here. (If it makes you feel any better, most drones purchased these days already have this onboard. You can find out if yours does at this website).
Once that’s all squared away, it’s time to fly. In addition to the B4UFly app, you’ll now also be able to use LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability) to request instant authorization to fly in controlled airspace. The B4UFly app has a link to its sister LAANC app, and makes requesting authorization really easy. It doesn’t work everywhere, but it covers a lot of ground. Definitely give it a shot.
If your area isn’t covered by LAANC, you’ll need to coordinate with the FAA through DroneZone. Your course will teach you how to do this.
Learning new maneuvers
Flying a drone is easy… but it’s also easy to do badly. Creating great photos and videos from the ground through an eye in the sky is harder than you might think. It requires a soft touch and a lot of multitasking. Fortunately, it gets easier with practice.
To learn new ways to use your drone and capture stunning footage, refer to a few of my favorite YouTubers here:
To wrap up
Just do things by the book, dude. It’s not worth it. The FAA doesn’t mess around. One guy in Philadelphia got a $182,000 fine for noncompliance. Plenty of others have been fined in the area from $10,000 to $40,000. One company even got slapped with a $1.9MM fine for a series of noncompliant commercial flights. Granted, they settled for $200k afterwards, but still. That’s a lot of scratch, and I don’t want you to be the next person to get smoked by the FAA for not following the rules, especially when the rules are so easy to follow.
Also… please take this seriously. Flying carries danger with it, regardless of how big or small your aircraft is. Respect your equipment and the people trying to live their lives underneath it.
Finally… flying and photography are both fun on their own, but when you combine them? Oh boy. Not only do the results look spectacular, but the entire process is just a blast. So go get your drone certificate, get out there, and FLY. Because you’re lucky you were born in an era where this art form is available to everyone.
Enjoy yourself 👋🏻