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What is an FAA Part 107 Certificate?

Man with a thought bubble containing an FAA part 107 pilot certificate symbolizing him wondering if he needs a part 107 drone license.

14 CFR Part 107 is the part of the United States Code of Federal Regulations dealing with small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), which is the FAA's official term for what we commonly call "drones."

A Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate with a Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems rating is the FAA's official term for what most people call a "commercial drone license." It allows the certificate holder to operate fixed-wing and copter drones that weight less than 55 pounds (25kg).

FAA grants "certificates," not "licenses," to pilots and other aircrew members (formerly called "airmen"). They also grant "ratings" that further define the certificate holder's privileges. People in aviation commonly refer to their certificates and ratings as "tickets."

For example, I hold both pilot and mechanic certificates from the FAA, as well as ratings specifically defining my privileges under each of those certificates. I am not allowed to exercise any privilege of any of my certificates that falls outside the accompanying ratings.

In the case of drone pilots, the certificate itself is called "Remote Pilot." That's what will be printed on the front of your certificate. The rating is "Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems," which will be printed on the back of your certificate. The full name for your ticket will be "Remote Pilot Certificate with a Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems rating."

Who Needs a Remote Pilot Certificate?

Link to Pilot Institute Part 107 Commercial Drone Pilot course

The most common (and incorrect) answer to the question of who needs an FAA Part 107 certificate is that you only need a Part 107 license if you're flying a drone commercially, for compensation, or in furtherance of a business.

Unfortunately, that answer is wrong. That's how it works for Part 61 pilots flying manned aircraft under Part 91. It doesn't apply to Part 107 pilots flying unmanned aircraft.

14 CFR § 107.12(a) actually requires that anyone manipulating the controls of an sUAS must possess a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate with an sUAS rating, or be under the direct supervision of a certificated pilot who can immediately take over the controls. It doesn't say "when flying for commercial purposes" or "in furtherance of a business." That's Part 91 stuff. It doesn't apply to Part 107.

The fact is that Part 107 itself does not distinguish between commercial and non-commercial operations. According to Part 107, if you fly a drone, you need either to be Part 107 certificated, or be under the direct, side-by-side supervision of someone who is.

The Recreational Exception

It would, of course, be ridiculous, expensive, and a bureaucratic nightmare to require every 10-year-old flying a toy drone in his or her backyard to become a certificated pilot. On the other hand, it is a desirable thing for every 10-year-old flying a toy drone in his or her backyard to have some familiarity with safe sUAS operation.

Congress has addressed this dilemma by creating a recreational exception for sUAS operators. In a nutshell, the exception allows non-certificated people to fly drones provided the following conditions are met:

The full text of the law establishing the recreational exception can found at 49 U.S.C. § 44809.

The training and testing requirements can be satisfied by earning a TRUST Certificate. You also need to familiarize yourself with a "community-based organization's" safety guidelines and be able to identify which organization's guidelines you're operating under if asked by a law enforcement officer or a representative of the FAA.

If you are flying a drone for any reason that isn't "strictly-recreational," you are operating outside the recreational exception and must have an FAA Part 107 certificate.

That's why commercial operations require Part 107. It's not because they're commercial. It's because they're not recreational.

What the FAA Considers Compensation

The recreational exception limits drone operation by non-certificated people to flights whose purposes are "strictly recreational." That means that there is no purpose to the flight other than having fun.

According to FAA Advisory Circular AC 61-142, "Compensation is the receipt of anything of value that is contingent on the pilot operating the aircraft." It doesn't have to be cash money. The chance to fly an expensive new drone so you can review it on social media is considered compensation as far as the FAA is concerned.

In fact, if you (or anyone else) receive anything of value, whether tangible or not, from flying drones, then your flying is no longer recreational. You (or someone else) are being compensated for your flying.

Similarly, if you are flying in furtherance of any business (not just one that you own), then your flying is no longer recreational. Someone is making money from your flying, which the FAA considers compensation; and flying a drone for any reason other than the sheer joy of it takes you outside the recreational exception.

Let's look at a few example of what the FAA has traditionally considered to count as "compensation," some of which may be less-than-obvious to people without an aviation background.

In short, if you fly a drone for any reason other than the sheer joy of flying a drone, you are flying outside of the recreational exception; and that means that you need to earn a Part 107 Certificate.

Fortunately becoming Part 107 certificated is pretty straightforward. The most-difficult part is that you will have to pass a written test, which most people pass if they take a good Part 107 training course. Because there are no refunds if you fail, be sure to prepare for your Part 107 Remote Pilot test before you register for the exam.

The Kinder, Gentler FAA

Link to Pilot Institute Drone Business Made Easy course

In recent years, the FAA has been trying the voice of reason before bringing down the hammer of justice on drone pilots who simply didn't know that their flying fell outside the Administration's definition of "strictly-recreational."

In most cases where not having a Part 107 certificate is the whole offense (that is, everything else about the flying was legal), the FAA will begin by "counseling" the violator to get his or her Part 107 certificate.

When the FAA "counsels" someone to do something, it means they're trying to save the person being counseled and the taxpayers the time, trouble, and cost of a legal proceeding. The best response is to be polite, respectful, and compliant. If you are, then chances are very good that things will go well for you. You'll earn your Part 107, fly within the rules, and all will be well.

If, on the other hand, you cop an attitude and don't comply with the FAA's "counsel," then you may wind up like this guy, who was fined $182,000 for repeatedly ignoring the FAA's counsel that he earn a Part 107 certificate, as well as follow the rules when flying.

So don't be that guy. The FAA may start with the voice of reason, but they won't hesitate to pull the heavy hammer of justice out of their toolbox if you don't take their "counsel" very, very seriously.

Revised June 12, 2023.

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