UAS Operators v. Pilots: Are They The Same Thing? Do They Need to Be?

Last week we wrote about the difficulties facing schools that want to train UAS pilots.  Today we look a little deeper at the underlying issue:  what does it take to be a commercial UAS pilot?  We won’t know the answer to this question for sure until the final UAS rules are promulgated.  We can, however, make an educated guess by looking at the currently available material from the FAA.

Yesterday, we reported on the recently updated Order 8900.1, which contains guidance to the Flight Standards Service regarding operation of UASs by public entities under Certificates of Authorization.  While these piloting requirements probably are not going to be identical to the ultimate sUAS rules, they let us get a glimpse as to where the FAA may be heading on the issue.

According to Order 8900.1, the overarching goal of the FAA is to ensure that any UAS pilots “have an appropriate level of understanding of the Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations sections appropriate to the airspace where UAS operate.”  All UAS operations falling under the Order must have one Pilot in Command (PIC), who cannot also be the designated observer for the flight.  The PIC has the same level of authority and responsibility as the pilot of any other aircraft under 14 C.F.R. 91.3.

The FAA’s position is that the certificate requirement for the PIC “depends on the type of operation conducted.”  See FAA Order 8900.1 16-4-1-3.  The factors used by the FAA to decide if a private pilot certificate is needed include:  the location of the planned operations, the mission profile, the size of the aircraft, and whether the flight will be made beyond visual line-of-sight.  The FAA explicitly requires a private pilot certificate when the flight:

  1. Is above 400′,
  2. Is conducted under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR),
  3. Is at night,
  4. Is conducted at a joint-use or public airfield,
  5. Requires a chase aircraft.

Even if a private pilot’s certificate is not required, the FAA still mandates certain training.  The PIC must have had ground instruction and passed the FAA private pilot written exam.  A PIC without a private pilot certificate is limited to flights:

  1. During daylight,
  2. In “non-congested” areas,
  3. Solely within visual line of sight in class G airspace,
  4. Limited to no more than one-half nautical mile from the pilot,
  5. At least 5 miles from an airport or helipad,
  6. Conducted from a privately owned airfield or off-airport location.

Pilots are also expected to have some recurrent training, including, at a minimum, three takeoffs (or launches) and three landings (or recoveries) within the previous 3 months.  There is also a medical requirement.  All UAS PICs must have a class 2 medical certificate.  All UAS crew members are also expected to adhere to the drug and alcohol restrictions set out in 14 C.F.R. 91.17.

Finally, the FAA mandates additional training for those PICs who wish to conduct a flight operation that requires a pilot certificate.  These include:

  1. Normal, abnormal, and emergency procedures for the UAS being operated;
  2. Manufacturer-specific training;
  3. Demonstrated proficiency; and
  4. Testing in the UAS being operated.

The FAA has a delicate balancing act — to open the skies to UASs while maintaining enough control to make sure they are safe.  If Order 8900.1 contained the final rules that applied to all sUAS pilots, the one thing we are sure is that most people would be unhappy.  Groups like ALPA would say this is not nearly enough, and only commercial pilots should be flying.  On the other hand, many people toying with the idea of getting into the UAS business would complain that this is far too burdensome.  Something to ponder while we wait for the rules later this year.

(Originally posted August 6, 2014)

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