A Pilot’s Take on Drone School

Getting a commercial drone license shouldn’t be too difficult, if you already fly airplanes.

DJI Phantom drone
A DJI Phantom, one of the most common drones in the air for hobbyists and professionals alike.

When the FAA released a new certification test for drone pilots last August—the 60-question Aeronautical Knowledge Test (AKT)—the response was immediate: More than 3,300 people signed up on the first day to take the test. We shouldn’t expect any drone pilot shortages in the near future.

The requirements are straightforward: If you are at least 16 years old and pass the FAA exam and a TSA review, you’re cleared to fly commercial drones (recreational pilots don’t need to do any of this).  

Pilots who’ve completed their biennial flight review within the previous two years can get their drone certifications simply by taking a short online FAA training course. In my case, it had been several years since my last review (even though I’m a single- and multi-engine commercial pilot with instrument and CitationJet ratings), so I decided I’d go the AKT route.

Fortunately, there are plenty of schools out there, from simple online courses aimed at passing the FAA exam to university-level classes that include simulators and hands-on flight training. I chose Drone Pilot Ground School, which offers an online course for $299 to prepare for the AKT—it was well-reviewed, the price was fair, and it seemed pretty serious without repeating what I already knew about flying.

There is a $150 fee that goes to the testing facility. On test day, you can bring along a simple calculator, a magnifying glass, and other items specified by the FAA. To pass the test, which you take online (at a qualified test center), an applicant must get 70 percent (42 of the 60 questions) correct. The questions are all multiple choice, with three choices. There’s a generous two-hour time limit for the test.

For a licensed pilot, this is an easy test assuming you’re up to date on airspace regulations, communications, meteorology, weather reports, airport and airspace operations, sectional charts and the like. For someone with no aviation experience, I expect it would be much more challenging. Flying is complex, and the FAA is uncompromising. I passed with a score of 90 percent and completed the test in 60 minutes, but I missed a couple. The questions I got wrong had to do with interpretations. Some questions, in my opinion, had more than one real-world answer. (I also misinterpreted a couple of obscure METAR weather report abbreviations; who’d have thought “BR” stood for mist and not broken clouds?)

I estimate that 80-90 percent of the test questions could be easily answered by current licensed pilots, with 10-20 percent being specifically related to Part 107: UAV regulations, safety, operations, performance, and airspace limitations.

The FAA estimates that an applicant will spend about 20 hours of self-study to prepare for this initial test and 10 hours to prepare for the recurrent test, which is required every 24 months. To get your commercial drone license there is no requirement to demonstrate flying skills, so there is no flight test.

After you pass the test you’ll need to go to the FAA Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website to complete the application. From that point it takes about 10 days to get your temporary license by email.  The permanent license will be sent via regular mail once all other FAA processing is completed.

Alan Perlman, Founder and CEO of Drone Pilot Ground School, strongly recommends that anyone entering this new field adopt a pilot’s mindset.  “This is a serious business where the focus must be on safety and regulations,” he said.  “UAVs are different from other forms of flying. It’s less about stick and rudder skills and more about understanding technology and systems.”