By Dee Zunker
Quick disclaimer – This post is written for the United States; however, the reasoning is similar in other countries as well.
First: It’s easy and inexpensive to get a license.
You study the material, schedule your test, pay $150, and pass a 60-question knowledge test. You then refresh your license every 2 years with another $150 and a shorter 40-question test. Yes, there is a lot of information to review and learn. And understanding the National Airspace System and controlled airspace is not always straight forward. But this is basic information that a drone pilot should know whether flying commercially or not. In fact, the FAA agrees and is working on a knowledge and safety test for hobby / recreational flyers which is expected to be in place by the end of the year.
The bottom line: There is no excuse for not getting your license if you are using your drone commercially. To get started, you can go to the FAA website for the Part 107 steps. The areas that need to most attention on the test IMO are learning to read airspace charts, weather, and airspace charts.
While all the information is readily available form the FAA website, there are a number of third party resources for getting ready for the test: some good and some bad. I strongly recommend Drone U. They have tons of information on getting your certification, learning to not crash your drone, how to apply for waivers after you get your certificate, a good community for getting answers to the inevitable questions that come up, and a podcast that covers current topics.
Second: The pilot and client could get fined.
Civil Penalty Actions by the FAA can range from $1,100 to $27,500, but FAA communications have stated fines per flight of $1,100 for the pilot and $11,000 for the client related to Part 107 violations. To be honest, you do not hear much about FAA enforcement of UAS operations to this point, so it would be easy to just accept the risk of getting caught, or that the drone images of the house in a 0 ft grid near an airport will not get flagged by enforcement. While the risk is probably still low for getting caught, I would not want to be in a situation with my client where we could get fined. Does your client understand the risk involved? As the FAA UAS program matures, I am sure the enforcement processes and infrastructure will as well.
Another more likely scenario is an irate neighbor calls the cops on you or your pilot. You may need to show the officer onsite what you are doing. While the local authorities do not regulate airspace, you are required to produce your information for them if requested. Without your documentation, your drone operation may get shut down. How embarrassing would that be?
Third: Liability Insurance
This is the most important reason to be a certified drone pilot. Without a license, insurance companies will not issue liability insurance for drone operations. Hiring companies routinely ask for contractors to have $1 – $2 million liability coverage, and would not dream of allowing a contractor onsite without it. But as an unlicensed drone pilot, you have $0 of liability insurance. Business general liability policies specifically exclude coverage for unmanned aircraft (UAS). It has to be added to the policy as an UNMANNED AIRCRAFT – LIABILITY ENDORSEMENT. After you get your license you have a couple of options: On demand insurance or add the endorsement to your policy. Some companies will offer drone liability coverage, but not at the same level as the overall general liability policy. This is the case for the PPA drone liability insurance which only includes up to $50,ooo for an additional $150/year, which is quite expensive for this level of coverage. I added the UAS endorsement to my policy through the Hartford / Hill & Usher for ~ $175/yr additional premium, and I have the same liability $2 million as my overall policy.
As an alternative to adding the drone to your standard policy in the beginning, you can use on-demand insurance such as Thimble (formerly Verifly) to buy $1 -$10 million liability coverage for 1 hour for $10-$25 depending on the flight area. Once you start doing more flights, the annual policy will be more cost effective.
Once you have added your UAS endorsement to General Liability Policy, ask for an updated Certificate Of Insurance. You may notice there is no indication on the form of UAS coverage which is the case for The Hartford. In this case ask your insurance company to add the coverage in the notes of the COI so it is clear for your clients you have UAS coverage.
Are you hiring drone pilots?
You should verify your drone pilot is licensed and insured.
- Check the FAA Airmen Registry and search for your pilot. Make sure you know the full name which may be different than what your pilot goes by. Once you find your pilot, you will see the issue date for the Remote Pilot Certificate. If this date is longer than 2 years ago, you will need to check the pilot’s paperwork onsite and see the Unmanned Aircraft Recurrent Exam document. Every pilot should have their license card which is similar in size to a drivers license, and the Recurrent Exam document with them when they fly.
- Ask for a copy/screen-shot of the on-demand coverage or request a copy of a Certificate of Insurance from the pilot. The certificate should show the UAS coverage. Some insurance companies do not add the notation for the UAS coverage on the COI by default. So if you get a COI without any indication of UAS coverage, just ask the pilot to get a copy with UAS coverage noted on the COI. The insurance company will have no problem adding it in the notes section of the COI if the coverage is valid.
Don’t put yourself and your client in a position to get fined, or not have liability insurance. Becoming a licensed and insured drone pilot or hiring one is the smart thing to do.