How to Get Your Commercial Drone Pilot License (Part 107 Certification)
Who doesn't love watching an awesome drone shot?! Unless you want to rent a helicopter, there is no other way to get wide, sweeping shots from high in the sky. From capturing a sunny lakefront or a city skyline at night, a drone is the easiest way to get hundreds of feet in the air with the press of a few buttons. Clients also love drone shots! I repeat, clients love drone shots! As long as they are used properly and effectively, they will instantly increase your production value.
With all that being said, you cannot just go out and purchase a drone, then start charging money for drone services. I mean, you could, but it's illegal with fines up to $27,500 for civil penalties, up to $250,000 for criminal penalties, or even jail time. It's no joke! Professional drone operators are required to go through the proper training channels before being able to fly outside of being a hobbyist. You will need a drone pilot's license, and more importantly, you need to know the laws and rules of drone operation so you can fly safely. Below are the steps you need to take to officially become a commercial drone operator!
Purchasing the right drone
First things first: You need to buy a drone! There are many drone companies out there, but only a select few have any real market share. The industry standard company for shooting video with drones is called DJI. Whether you fly drones for a hobby or for Hollywood productions, these are the drones you want to look into.
Don't get me wrong, your drone doesn't have to be DJI. There is also Parrot, Yuneec, and even a newer company called Autel Robotics that is coming out with a drone that can shoot 8K footage, but DJI’s track record is hard to beat.
I purchased a DJI Mavic 2 Pro for my drone needs. It's not the most expensive from the drone lineup (that goes to the Inspire 2, a drone that can carry the payload of a cinema camera), but it still has phenomenal image quality, along with advanced features that I could now never give up.
Learning to fly your drone
So you purchased a drone and want to start making money off of it. Not so fast. Before getting your license, I highly recommend you practice piloting your drone first before dropping any cash on a license. Read through the instruction manual. Watch some online tutorials. Take it up in the air a few times without even capturing any video. It's a whole different type of filming. You can be the best camera operator in the world while on the ground, but it's nothing compared to piloting a small drone 400ft in the air. But before you even take your new drone on its first flight...
Make sure everything is updated
First and foremost, make sure every single component of your drone is updated to its latest version. For the DJI Mavic 2 Pro, you have to make sure your drone unit is updated, along with the controller, and even the smart batteries! Doing this will ensure the software is up to date and your drone will fly optimally.
Get comfortable behind the controller
Starting out with flying a drone can be a little intimidating. At least it was for me. It definitely takes some practice and training before you become any good at it. I bought my drone but didn't even fly it for a few months. I know that might sound crazy, but I didn't even quite know where to start. After watching some videos and getting help from my brother-in-law, who is an experienced drone operator with his Part 107, I then felt comfortable getting my drone in the air. And this might sound silly, but playing videogames also helped A LOT when getting behind the sticks of a drone and learning how to navigate it in the air. So if you have any skill or knowledge with Call of Duty, kudos to you, you're a step ahead already.
Go to an open field, or someone's backyard, and just start getting used to how the drone operates and handles. Its speed, how it turns, how high it can go, even how fast the battery drains (it's freaking QUICK!). Once you get comfortable with the controls, you will feel much more confident about being able to fly. The last thing you want is to look unprepared and unskilled in front of a client.
Getting your Part 107 license
The name of the drone license is called the Part 107, which you received from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after passing an exam. I’ll lay out the steps I took to get this license, along with what you're supposed to do after passing it.
To take the Part 107 test, you will need to study the test materials so you know how to properly operate your drone in US airspace.
If you go into the test blind, you are guaranteed to fail, without a doubt. It's pretty tough! It asks in-depth questions, and you actually need to study if you plan on passing. The site I used to learn the material for the test was called Drone Launch Academy. It costs $200 to sign up for the course, but it’s well worth it, and if you have a business in place, you can write it off as a continuing education expense.
The study materials on this site, from both the questions and the answers, are lifted VERBATIM from the actual test, like the sectional maps you'll need to know how to read, the weather patterns you'll need to memorize, the safety measure you need to keep in mind, and all the other incredibly small details that you will be asked. They even created short quizzes that you can take for each section of the material, which helped TREMENDOUSLY!
One big disclaimer I have about this site, and I don’t mean to knock it too hard, is that the production quality of the videos is pretty low (example below). There are a lot of long takes with loads of dialog being read off of a teleprompter, accompanied with basic text and animations. But with that being said, the information is invaluable, and what they are teaching is spot-on exactly what you need to know to pass. So go in with a studious mind, a pencil and notepad, and Drone Launch Academy will help you succeed. It took me about 4 hours or so to go through all the material in the course (including flipping back to certain sections), so it's a bit of a time investment, but it's well worth it once you can start bookling drone gigs! Once you feel confident in the course material, then it’s time to sign up to take the actual exam.
Where to take the test
Once you have the material down pat, you will need to schedule taking the exam at a local testing center. I personally took mine at a PSI Testing Center, but I know that you can also take it at a Pearson Testing Center location. Choose whichever is most convenient for you. The test costs $160 and you have 90 minutes to complete 70 questions. They give you a resource booklet to use during the exam that contains images of sectional maps, which you will need to use for a large amount of the questions. The booklet is actually the exact same one used in the Drone Launch Academy lessons, so that's why I recommend using that exam prep site so much. Also note, that you have to take a reoccurring test every two years to maintain your license.
What to do after you pass
You will know right away whether you passed or not at the testing center. Once you do, they will give you a results sheet with a stamp of recognition. Another thing you need to do after you pass is to make sure the drone is registered with the FAA.
To do this, you need to go to FAA’s website, click the register button, type in your info, and submit. It does cost $5 to do this, but it must be done!
Once you are registered, you then need to fill out a different form on the FAA site to get an official certificate and card sent to you. The instructions for this are laid out on the results sheet you received. After completing this process, you have to wait about a month for the certificate to arrive. They give you a link to a temporary license if you must fly before it arrives.
The final step of being ready to officially fly your drone and receive compensation for it is to put your newly acquired FAA ID on side of your drone. I happened to have a Brother label printer, so I just used that, but you can also purchase labels online for less than $10 if you don’t have any other means.
How to fly your drone on a shoot
So what’s next?! You have your drone, your Part 107, your keen flying ability, and a client that wants to book you for drone footage at a downtown city location. Let’s fast forward to the day of the shoot...
Check the weather and flying conditions
You wake up the day of your shoot, and it’s not looking very weather-friendly outside....do you still go on the shoot or reschedule? Do some research on your weather app and see if the conditions will affect the flight of your drone. Even the slightest winds can make your drone unsteady once you take it up in the air, resulting in unusable footage. Or a dark, cloudy day can make for lackluster footage. With your newfound knowledge from taking the exam, you now know how to properly examine the weather fronts and if you’ll be capable of flying a drone or not.
Contact the FAA for permission
Let's rewind the previous day real quick....you wake up and it’s is an immaculate day for flying your drone! You arrive at your shooting location and are ready to capture some incredible footage. But first, you need to call your drone into the FAA to get clearance for flying in a highly populated downtown area. The way to go about this is to use an iOS app called Kittyhawk, which is the only FAA-approved app to request LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability). You log in, fill in your details, request permission, and if everything lines up correctly, the FAA should grant you permission to fly!
You don't always have to put in a request to the FAA to fly your drone. You only need to do this if you are flying in an area that has a designated airspace class (G, E, D, C, B, A). If you are just flying at a business for a client that is nowhere near an airport or any type of restricted airspace, you will be okay and there is no need to call it in.
This one is obvious, but still worthy of its own section. Always be extremely cautious while operating a drone. As your test prep puts sternly, always be completely aware of your surroundings, both above and below you, especially if you’re in an area with pedestrians, and always make sure your drone is in your line of sight. It’s even recommended to have a spotter to help make sure you’re navigating safely and not in danger's way. The last thing you want to your drone crashing into something, or worse, someone. Even with DJI's extremely advanced avoidance detection built-in the Mavic 2 Pro, I've still crashed it into a tree (or two) from being careless. Everything was okay, but the drone isn’t fail-proof, and it could have easily smashed it into a hundred pieces (buy insurance for it if it's expensive!). You’re still in control, and any mishaps will likely be blamed on you.
I'll keep this section short, but if you need to shoot with your drone on a bright sunny day, and the client wants you to shoot at 24fps with 1/50 shutter speed (for that natural cinematic motion blur looks), then it is EEEEESSENTIAL that you buy some neutral density filters in front of your drone lens. I purchased PolarPro's Shutter collection, which gives you 1/4, 1/8. and 1/16 ND filters. I even did a test using each filter, and on a typical day with the sun shining, the 1/16 was barely enough to make it so the sky wasn't completely blown out. The filters aren't cheap at $70, but if you want to shoot amazing video where the clouds can still be seen in the sky, without having to go to 1/6400 shutter speed, then be sure to add these ND filters to your arsenal.
BONUS: Best resources on YouTube to hone in on your drone skills
After I got my license, I started flying way more. I knew the basics of flying and operation, but I wanted to teach myself everything there is to know about the Mavic 2 Pro. The features inside of the Mavic 2 Pro are pretty insane, like being able to automatically track and follow you, perform perfect orbiting rotations around anything you point it at, and more. This lead me down a YouTube rabbit hole including all the different flight modes, to flight tips and tricks, to optimization, even to legalities that aren't outlined in the Part 107 test. A few YouTube channels that I found useful in helping me learn the Mavic 2 Pro was Dylan Young, Drone Supremecy, and Drone Film Guide.
While this isn't the definitive drone guide, hopefully it can still help guide you on your journey on becoming a certified drone pilot and make it seem more accessible. Getting my Part 107 was on my eventual to-do list for years, until I finally just buckled down, told myself I have to get it, and got it done. Yes, it does take some investment of time, effort, and money, but being able to fly a drone and get paid for it is an invaluable service that you can provide to anyone that asks. Oh yeah, and if I didn't already mention, it’s really fun to fly a drone!
Let me know if you have any other questions about drones at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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