People often pose the question, “What will happen if I get caught flying a commercial drone without a Remote Pilot Certificate?” This is a very valid question, considering answers found on the internet might not always be accurate. For example, there are online forums suggesting 1) you won’t get caught by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); 2) you shouldn’t bother getting a Remote Pilot Certificate; or 3) it’s not worth it to invest in drone training or certification.
This is not sound advice. The risk associated with non-certificated individuals can not only harm others but can also result in serious legal issues for both the individual and the hiring business.
What Should Businesses Look for When Hiring a sUAS Service Provider?
Whenever a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) is being used for a commercial – i.e., non-hobbyist – purpose, the FAA requires that the operator possess a specific authorization, most commonly in the form of a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate. The FAA published a new set of regulations in June 2016 known as Part 107. In addition to outlining the operational limitations of sUAS, Part 107 also provided requirements for the issuance of a commercial Remote Pilot Certificate with a sUAS rating for commercial drone pilots. A commercial Remote Pilot Certificate allows a person to get paid for flying a drone; the purpose is to ensure that a commercial drone pilot is familiar with and safely abides by the established rules of the sky.
It is becoming more and more common for large commercial businesses to either integrate their own drone program or outsource for sUAS service providers. Whether a company is hiring a long-term drone operator or someone to fly for a single job, they must be sure to verify the legitimacy of the proposed sUAS service provider.
Here are some main requirements:
- Proof of proper credentials to conduct commercial sUAS flights, including a Part 107 certificate, Section 333 exemption or another FAA-issued Certificate of Authorization (COA);
- Verifiable work experience in the form of imagery/data samples; and
- Up-to-date certification (a biannual flight review for Part 107 must be passed every two years).
Why Would it Matter If They’re Certified or Not?
The insurance aspect alone should compel every commercial business seeking drone operations to verify the legitimacy of their sUAS service provider. Insurance companies will cover operations conducted by individuals only if they have the proper credentials to conduct the specified types of unmanned aircraft flights. If they do not, any coverage that they claim to have either doesn’t exist or was most likely fraudulently obtained and, thus, will not apply if an accident does occur.
Besides the risk associated from an insurance standpoint, there are legal concerns that come with hiring a drone operator for any commercial use without a Remote Pilot Certificate. Although the FAA is hardly able to police the entire commercial drone space at this time, they are, of course, trying to deter unauthorized operations. If a business is caught or turned in, the company or individual hiring/contracting them could face federal penalties for their role in the unauthorized flights.
In addition to the hiring company’s suffering from possible federal penalties, non-certified drone operators performing the commercial sUAS flights can also face heavy fines and potential jail time for non-compliance. For example, a Chicago-based company was fined $1.9 million by the FAA for embarking on unauthorized drone photography flights a couple years ago. The case recently settled at a $200,000 civil fine.
Not only will getting a Remote Pilot Certificate dismiss many legal concerns, but it will also make the pilot more valuable and marketable to commercial businesses, resulting in more drone service jobs for the individual.
The Bottom Line
From a liability and legal standpoint, even if the FAA has not developed a solution to effectively address non-certificated individuals who conduct commercial drone flights, they eventually will. In the meantime, the potential impact in the event of an accident for both the business and the pilot should be enough to deter any commercial sUAS flights conducted by non-certificated operators.
Colin Romberger is the chief pilot at Scranton, Pa.-headquartered DARTdrones Flight School. He graduated from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University as one of the first five students to earn a master’s degree in unmanned aircraft systems, with a focus in flight operations and systems design. DARTdrones offers Part 107 test prep, as well as various drone training courses for enterprise clients across the U.S. Romberger can be reached at email@example.com or 800-264-3907.