Finally, Sealock hovered his mouse hovered over the submit button. “I didn’t know if I wanted to click,” he says. When he did, the computer spat out his score: a pass. Pending a background check, Sealock is now one of the first certified commercial drone pilots in the United States.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, over 3,300 people like Sealock signed up to be the first to take the agency’s new commercial drone pilot test yesterday, when its long-awaited unmanned vehicle systems regulations went into effect.
If you’re looking to join the ranks of government-approved drone pilots, these Chuck Yeagers of the robot era, here’s what you need to know.
The new regulations should crack down on the dummies whose drones interfered with firefighters, commercial aircraft, and the White House lawn. They’re also the feds’ response to a booming new industry, one formerly regulated by a hodgepodge of official suggestions. The FAA expects to certify 600,000 commercial drones by January, and says the burgeoning sector will generate $82 million for the American economy in the next 10 years.
The rules concern commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds and should not, theoretically, apply to hobbyist flyers. They require operators be at least 16 years old, keep their drones within sight (bad news, Amazon), stay below 400 feet, and stay out of the air at night. (There is a waiver process to circumvent each stipulation, evaluated by the FAA on a case-by-case basis.) Earthbound pilots have to pass the aeronautical knowledge test, a background check, and register their drone with the FAA. Anyone who wants to fly without certification must be observed by someone who’s got it.
For the most part, commentators seem pleased with the rules, which lend legitimacy to those turning drones into their full-time careers: photographers, construction workers, real estate agents, farmers, even oil and gas professionals.
Acing the Test
The test covers heavy duty aeronautical know-how, with topics like aviation weather sources and evaluation, maintenance and pre-flight inspections, drone performance, and official radio communication procedures, since pilots will occasionally have to call into air traffic control towers, just like the sky-plying brethren. “I was feeling really good walking into this thing,” says Tony Rappa, who owns a photography business in Winter Garden, Florida, and took his certification test at 8 am Monday. “But then I was heartbroken. There were 38 questions I wasn’t sure about.” (He passed anyway.)
Some commercial drone pilots prefer the challenge. It makes the industry look good if well-trained drone professionals keep their flying robots out of trouble. “It was Deadwood for the first couple of years, but now there’s a WalMart in town,” says Parker Gyokeres, who owns an aerial photography business. “We’ve gone legit.” Not to mention, the harder the test, the fewer the competitors for business.
So those looking for a new line of work should grab their reading glasses. Gyokeres has about “15 pounds” of material he’s found for free online, a mix of FAA handbooks and test prep materials prepared by informed enthusiasts. (He takes his test Wednesday.) Sealock “studied [his] butt off,” for a month, and relied on online test courses and Facebook groups, where hundreds of test takers pass around study tricks and root each other on.
Along with a fleet of apps, drone flight schools have popped up around the country. “Our business is exploding and it feels impossible to keep up with the level of interest,” says Abby Speicher, co-founder of the Massachusetts-based DARTdrones, which now offers a premium operator certification course for $1,450.
If you do make it out with a certification, know it lasts just 24 months before you have to retake the test—which might look different by then. Arthur Holland Michel, who co-directs of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, told The Los Angeles Times he expects the waiver process will show the FAA how people are actually using commercial drones—and if the agency is really capable of regulating these things. Changes may follow. Who knows: By 2018, updated rules might even allow Amazon-powered delivery drones to motor through the sky like so many birds.
Meanwhile, back in Jacksonville, Sealock’s father also took to Facebook. A former Army aviator, he posted a photo of his son with a few drones with the caption: “The Sealock aviation story continues.” KC’s certification will come in handy when the drone store where he works runs demonstrations. Even if he never leaves the ground, he’s a pilot now.