Posted July 18, 2016

FAA to lift manned aircraft pilot license requirement for drones

New ruling goes into effect in August. 

Posted by: By Bryan Baker, UAS Sales Manager - NAFTA at Leica Geosystems AG

On June 21, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its long-anticipated final rule concerning unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations. Referred to as Part 107 of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR), the rule draws upon and refers to many other regulations contained within the CFR.  The final rule is similar to the proposed rules issued in February 2015 with some slight modifications and most of the details filled in.

The two-page summary of Part 107 can be found HERE.  

The complete text that describes Part 107 and the process by which it was derived is 624 pages in length and can be found HERE.  

So what do the new drone rules (I’ll just refer to them as Part 107) mean for you and your business or organization?  


According to the FAA, Part 107 will go into effect in late August 2016. Currently, any business using a UAS must have a Section 333 exemption from the FAA and follow all of the operational limitations associated with that exemption. The two biggest hurdles in that process have been the amount of time (typically many months) required for the FAA to approve exemption petitions and the requirement for the operator to be an FAA licensed manned aircraft pilot. (See Flying UAS Without FAA Approval for more background information.) Public (government) entities using UAS must have a Certificate of Waiver Authorization (COA) and/or Section 333 exemption.  If you don’t already have a Section 333 exemption, you might as well wait until Part 107 takes effect because it will take much longer than 10 weeks to get an exemption.

If you do already have a Section 333 exemption, you can continue to operate under that exemption for now. When Part 107 takes effect, you can elect to operate under the new rules OR your existing exemption.

If you currently have a Section 333 petition filed with the FAA but have not yet received your exemption, the FAA will notify you if your petition falls within the operating parameters of Part 107.  You can elect to proceed with your 333 exemption or abandon it and just go with Part 107.  If your petition falls outside of the operating limitations (discussed later), your petition will continue through the exemption process.  For most geospatial professionals, Part 107 will cover the operational needs associated with their applications.

Pilot Requirements

This is the update the user community has been waiting for: Under Part 107, you will no longer need a manned aircraft pilot license (sport, recreational, private, commercial or ATP) to operate a UAS.  

UAS operators under Part 107 must be at least 16 years old and will be required to take an FAA Knowledge Exam every two years at the standard FAA testing centers. They will also be subject to a background check by the Department of Homeland Security. The Knowledge Exam will be based on an official curriculum published by the FAA (available online at The Knowledge Exam will be available when the rules go into effect at the end of August. Expect the price of the exam to be around $125.00.  Although the number of questions on the exam hasn’t been specified, 60 is pretty standard and you must achieve at least 70% correct to pass. If you pass the Knowledge Exam and your background check clears, you will receive a remote pilot operator certificate with a rating for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS).

RELATED: Get an overview of a new Knowledge Exam Study Guide in this webinar.

If you are a licensed manned aircraft pilot (sport, recreational, private, commercial or ATP), you can still operate under a Section 333 exemption. To operate under Part 107, you will have to complete the UAS curriculum (, course ALC-451) and request that a small UAS rating be added to your pilot certificate  It takes around two hours to complete the course, including the exam at the end.  Course completion shows up on your Wings.

Operating Limitations

Upon receiving your remote pilot operator certificate, you will be allowed to operate a UAS under the following partial list of limitations.  

  • Total UAS aircraft weight, including payload must be under 55 lb. (For reference, the Aibot X6 weighs 12.5 lb.)
  • Aircraft must remain within visual line of unaided (except corrective lenses) sight.
  • Maximum altitude above ground level (AGL) is 400 feet. You can fly higher than 400 ft if inspecting a structure taller than 400 ft, as long as you stay within 400 ft of the structure.
  • Maximum aircraft speed is 100 mph (87 kts)
  • Daylight operations only (local official sunrise to sunset). 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset if aircraft is equipped with anti-collision lighting.
  • Can operate in B,C,D,E airspace with ATC permission and may require ATC communications.

Anything outside of the above limitations either requires a waiver or a Section 333 exemption, which is beyond the scope of this discussion. There are additional limitations; however, they fit within the normal course of flight operations and do not adversely affect most geospatial applications. Refer to Part 107 for the complete list of limitations and waiver requirements.


Part 107 finally provides a standardized level of UAS operating parameters that satisfies most UAS application requirements. For the geospatial community, Part 107 provides a path to conduct aerial mapping and inspection applications in harmony within the national airspace system without undue regulatory burdens. While people from different backgrounds might debate that point, compared to the existing UAS requirements and the regulatory requirements for other types of aviation activities, Part 107 is a fairly low bar to cross.