How To Get Your Drone Pilot License

Before going through the steps you will need to complete to get your drone pilot license, let's look at why you might want to get one.

Why Get a Drone License?

A License Allows You to Fly Your Drone Commercially

If you want to get paid to fly your drone or sell any photos or videos you shoot with it, you are required to get a license. Commercial use includes things like taking photos and video for Real Estate ads, shooting photos for construction companies, or doing roof inspections. It also includes selling photos or videos directly to people or indirectly through stock photography agencies. If you produce videos to post to a YouTube channel that generates ad revenue or income from people clicking on Affiliate links that is considered commercial use as well.

A License Allows You to Fly Your Drone More Places

All of the airspace in the United States is controlled by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). Drone flights are restricted within a five mile radius of major (Class B, C, or D) airports. If you are flying recreationally and want to fly within five miles of a smaller Class G airport (including heliports at hospitals and Seaplane bases) you are required to notify the airport and air traffic control tower prior to flying. However, if you have your license you are not required to provide notification to these smaller airports. It sounds like a small thing, but you would be surprised how many small airports there are. Look at the map of the are around my house below. On the left you see the restricted flight areas for recreational fliers. Three major airports, an Air Force base, 20 small airports, two Seaplane bases and 36 heliports. Pretty much everywhere. The right shows the restrictions for licensed pilots. Three airports and an Air Force base.

AirMap screenshot
AirMap screenshot

Requirements to Get a Drone License

In order to qualify for a license you must be at least 16 years of age and be able to speak, read, write and understand English. You also must be physically and mentally sound, though you do not have to prove it by passing a physical exam. It's on the honor system. You do not need to be a U.S. Citizen, though you do need to have a green card.

How to Get a Drone License

There are several steps involved in getting your license. From start to finish, it will likely take three months or more. The 

  1. Study (Plan on 20-30 hours of digging through study materials)
  2. Schedule an appointment at a testing center (Availability varies widely but allow at least 2 weeks)
  3. Take the Remote Airman Knowledge test (You have 2 hours to complete the test)
  4. Apply online for your Remote Airman Certificate (Assuming you passed the test)
  5. Pass TSA background check (Based on the information you provided in your application)
  6. Receive Temporary Certificate (Will be available for download from your account in 2-4 weeks)
  7. Receive permanent card in the mail (Usually 2-3 months)

Now let's take a more detailed look at each of these steps.

Study 

You will not pass this test if you don't study. Some questions are common sense. Most require an understanding of aviation weather, sectional charts, airspace classifications, and other topics your average person will know nothing about. 


The FAA has some very good resources available for free to help you prepare for the test. You should definitely download the following documents: 
Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Remote Pilot Study Guide
Sample questions

Aeronautical Chart User's Guide 

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge 

Remote Pilot Knowledge Test Guide 


You absolutely want to download the Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement for Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot. You will be given a copy of this book to use during the test. If you are already familiar with it it will be to your advantage.


There are courses available online that you can take. I have not taken them, so I don't really have a recommendation. There are also study guides available for sale, but I suspect most of them simply repeat the information available in the free FAA publications I listed above. I found the Remote Pilot Study Guide to be very good. It was thorough and have excellent illustrations. It also had a lot of links to other FAA documents that were very useful.


One other resource I found extremely useful was a TAF/METAR decoder. The weather forecasts pilots use are extremely concise and very cryptic. For some reason, the FAA requires drone pilots to be able to understand them. Look at the examples below and you will see why an online decoder is helpful as you learn to decipher the code.


Example of a TAF forecast
KTPA 061740Z 0618/0724 02007KT P6SM BKN220 FM071700 06010G15KT P6SM FEW250 FM072200 07009KT P6SM SCT040


Example of a METAR forecast

KTPA 061653Z 02005KT 10SM BKN170 BKN260 12/M06 A3043 RMK AO2 SLP305 T01221061

Schedule Your Remote Airman Knowledge Test

The FAA uses Computer Assisted Testing Service (CATS) to administer their exams. Use the map on the CATS site to find a testing center near you. You will actually have to call and speak to one of their representatives to set up an appointment. They will also take your credit card information to cover the $150 test fee. Scheduling time frame varies depending on many factors, but they will be able to tell you which centers in your area have openings. You can schedule your test before you are done studying, just make sure you leave yourself enough time to get fully prepared.

Take Your Test

Now it's getting exciting. When you get to the testing center they will check you in and give you a locking cloth bag, two pieces of blank paper, one pencil and a testing supplement book. You will take everything out of your pockets and put it in the bag. The test proctor will lock the bag (they keep the key) and take you into the testing room. They will log into the test on the computer and go over all the instructions with you. Once you start, you have two hours to finish.


The test consists of 60 multiple choice questions. Some of the questions have at least one answer that is obviously wrong. Since there are only three choices for each question, you are now down to a 50-50 chance of getting it correct.


There are quite a few questions that require you to read information off a Sectional Chart. The graphics on the computer at my testing center were straight out of the 1980's and it was impossible to see the necessary details on screen. But any image or chart that is on the screen is also in the testing booklet they give you. Use the book, it's much easier. 


The testing booklet also includes a map key for Sectional Charts. That's a huge help if you can't remember what a particular symbol means. Just look at the key and it will tell you.


Another tip is to mark the questions you aren't sure of so you can go back to them later. The test proctor will show you how you can do this. You don't want to get hung up on a question and use up a lot of time. Plus, something in a later question might help you remember the answer.


When you're done you will click a button on the screen to notify the test proctor. You will get your score immediately. A score of 70% or higher is required to pass. If you fail the test you will need to wait at least 14 days to take it again. And yes, you will need to pay the $150 fee again.

Apply for Your Pilot Certificate 

Once your have passed your Knowledge exam, you need to apply for your license using the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA). It's all done online and is pretty straight forward. You will need to set up an account and enter the information about your test. It can take up to 72 hours before your test information will be available on the IACRA site. Once it is, you can complete your application. 


The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) will run a background check. Assuming you pass, you will be issued a Temporary Airman Certificate with a Small Unmanned Aircraft Rating. You can go to the IACRA site and download a PDF that you will need to have with you when you fly. It took about three weeks for my Temporary Certificate to show up on my IACRA account, but I'm sure that varies depending on the number of applications they are receiving.


Your permanent card will arrive by mail. I took my test August 31 and received my card in mid-November. Again, that time frame will vary. Although your license will not have an expiration date, it is good for 24 months from its date of issue. 

Remote Airman License