Maintaining your drone operator license during the coronavirus pandemic

By Rachel Mulholland, Skyward

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As media budgets tighten due to the coronavirus pandemic, many news organizations are turning to drones to generate the high-volume, high-quality content their viewers expect. During a time of decreased advertising revenue, drones can save your company money, generate additional revenue, and ensure you obtain the diverse video footage needed to support high-quality programming.

Yet as the current crisis continues, there’s been confusion about how to get certified as a drone operator and how to maintain your certification if it’s about to expire. Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require all commercial drone pilots to get a Remote Pilot Certificate before they fly, but most testing centers around the United States have been closed due to the coronavirus.

The good news is that PSI, which oversees most of the FAA’s testing centers throughout the U.S., plans to reopen many of its testing sites on a rolling basis. And if you need to maintain your current certification, the FAA has published a special regulation that allows certain Part 107 certification holders to extend their certification by taking an online test.

Getting certified for the first time

During these unprecedented times, drones are widely seen as a valuable tool for media organizations. They can help cover breaking news by capturing aerial footage. They can gather data of all types, including infrared scans, topographical maps and 3D models. They can reduce costs as compared to flying and maintaining helicopters. And they can serve as a new revenue source when rented out to other businesses.

If you’re applying for a Remote Pilot Certificate for the first time, you will need to schedule an in-person appointment at a testing center, and then file an online application after you pass the knowledge test. PSI is starting to reopen its testing centers as local jurisdictions allow. You can view the status of your region’s testing centers on the PSI Test Center Closures webpage. Be sure to familiarize yourself with Part 107 regulations before taking the test. Also, be sure to check with the testing center to confirm your appointment and learn of any special requirements while taking the test, such as face coverings.

Renewing your certification

The FAA requires Part 107 certified drone pilots to renew their certification by taking a knowledge test every 24 months. Usually, this requires an in-person test at a testing center, but due to the coronavirus, the FAA is allowing certain certificate holders to take an online test for a limited time.

If you’re able to safely take your knowledge test in person, you should do so. For one thing, the in-person exam is more comprehensive and specifically intended for drone operators. Moreover, passing the test at a testing center extends your test results for two years, compared to six months via the online method.

If you’re unable to complete the test in person, the FAA recently announced a new temporary measure, effective until June 2020, allowing current Part 107 certificate holders whose test results expire between April 1 and June 30, 2020 to complete an online course that renews their test results for six months. Two online tests are available from the FAA safety team: an “initial” course for traditional commercial pilots and a “recurrent” course for all other qualified drone operators.

The FAA’s temporary measure acknowledges that a shortage of Part 107 pilots could negatively affect “a community’s ability to support the safe inspection of infrastructure, including power lines, fire and rescue, flood responses, law enforcement, and overall public safety.” And this holds true for media outlets across the U.S. continuing to cover natural disasters, traffic accidents, and other critical news through the coronavirus crisis.

An evolving situation

As your news organization trains new drone operators and recertifies existing pilots during the coronavirus pandemic, keep in mind that the situation continues to evolve. To stay on top of new developments, please continue to monitor the FAA and PSI websites.

About Rachel Mulholland, Skyward

Rachel Mulholland is a professional services project manager for Skyward.