Training UAS Pilots Without Flying . . . Huh?

One of the major issues in the FAA’s ongoing UAS rulemaking is deciding what types of pilot training and certification will be required.  Currently, there does not seem to be a consensus on what skill levels are required for small commercial UAS operation.  Most of the Section 333 exemption petitions propose using an operator who has either a pilot’s license or a commercial pilot’s license.  Many of the comments submitted by the general public ask that the FAA not impose any requirement for a pilot certificate.

On the other hand, the Air Line Pilots Association has submitted public comments proposing that all commercial UAS operators have a commercial pilot’s license and a Class 2 medical certificate.  Of course, many of the same UASs proposed for use in these Section 333 petitions could be flown today by hobbyists who are not only without formal pilot training, but without any training whatsoever.

Perhaps a solution to this issue are schools that specialize in UAS operations and UAS piloting.  According to a recent article, this seemingly simple solution runs into substantial barriers due to the current FAA rules.  A UAS piloting school is a commercial operation.  Therefore, without an exemption, the one thing the school is forbidden from doing is actually allowing the students to fly.

While a number of universities have Certificates of Authorization, those certificates are limited to aeronautical research and cannot be used to authorize UAS pilot training.  As a result, the few schools that exist resort to text book and simulator training.  Even respected aeronautical institutions such as Embry-Riddle have had to find work-arounds, such as having students fly drones indoors, or tethered to the ground with heavy-duty fishing line as a way to augment the simulator training.

This problem is reminiscent of the old riddle about the chicken or the egg.  The FAA is ultimately looking for trained commercial UAS pilots.  Schools want to fill that need, but the curriculum is uncertain because the pilot requirements have not been defined, and the schools are limited in the type of hands-on training they can give.  The FAA, however, is having a hard time defining the levels of training needed because there have not been enough commercial operations to generate the type of real world data needed for the rulemaking.

Meanwhile, any hobbyist in America, with no license at all, can be in the air within minutes of the time their UAS is delivered by Amazon.

(Originally posted July 29, 2014)

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