For surveyors and geospatial professionals, obtaining a commercial sUAS (small unmanned aircraft system) pilot certification can open many new doors for success and efficiency. Recent case studies have proven that drones allow surveys to be completed faster, more accurately and more cost effectively. Today, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are beginning to be used as an end-to-end solution in land development, project site mapping, aggregate volumetrics, structural modeling and agricultural surveys. Drones are enhancing the services provided by professionals in a wide variety of industries. Learn the steps, limitations and regulations for a surveyor to become a commercial UAV pilot.

What Does a Surveyor Need to Do to Fly Drones Commercially?

In almost all circumstances, a surveying mission will be considered a “commercial use of drones.” Whenever a drone is being used for a commercial purpose, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that the operator possess a specific authorization, most commonly in the form of a Part 107 Certificate.

The FAA published a new set of regulations in June 2016 known as Part 107. This new set of Federal Aviation Regulations, or FARs, were the FAA’s first official rules governing the commercial use of sUAS. In addition to outlining the operational limitations of sUAS, Part 107 also provided requirements for the issuance of a commercial Remote Pilot Certificate with a sUAS rating for commercial drone pilots. A commercial Remote Pilot Certificate, or “drone license” allows a person to get paid for flying a drone. The purpose of the drone license is to ensure that a commercial drone pilot is familiar with and safely abides by the established drone rules of the sky.

Steps to Obtaining an UAV Pilot Certification

  1. Study for the Part 107 exam: Most people find that they need to study for about 15-20 hours. Test topics include airspace, flight restrictions, aviation weather, chart study and many more.
  2. Sign Up to Take the Exam with the FAA: The FAA exam can be taken at any of the over 700-plus FAA testing centers. Most testing centers don’t need to be booked more than a week in advance.
  3. Take the Part 107 exam: This exam is a two-hour, 60-question test, which is administered on a computer with a proctor in one of the FAA testing centers.
  4. Receive a temporary certificate: Upon passing the FAA exam, you will finalize your application on IACRA and then receive a temporary certificate within a few days.
  5. Receive a UAV license: Within one to three months, a license will come in the mail.
  6. Two-year renewal: A biannual flight review must be passed every two years. However, the FAA has not yet released the official rules regarding how the biannual review will be passed.

What are the Limitations for a Surveyor Using Drones?

Part 107 is intended to be the first step toward full integration for the use of drones into the National Airspace System (NAS). The full set of regulations has been published in the Federal Aviation Regulations Aeronautical Information Manual (FAR AIM). Although Part 107 presents many benefits for surveyors and other professionals, the regulations under 107 still limit pilots on:

  • Flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS)
  • Flights over crowds
  • Night flights
  • Flying in controlled airspace (near airports)

In order to fly a drone in a manner that exceeds the scope of an FAA regulation, you must get a waiver allowing you to do so. The three top waiver requests of 2016 were night operations (65 percent), operations over people (35 percent) and beyond visual line of sight (19 percent).

Possible BVLOS FAA Regulation Changes That Can Affect Surveyors

Although it has been a popular request in terms of Part 107 waivers over the past year, the majority of requests for BVLOS authorization among Part 107 sUAS operators have been denied. These types of flights can be extremely beneficial for surveyors and mapping professionals because they allow UAVs to collect data over much greater distances and areas, which in return can reduce expenses and time spent gathering accurate imagery. Hopefully, as sUAS technology continues to prove its performance and reliability, and fully addresses the FAA’s safety concerns, BVLOS approvals will become more common in the coming months, which will open the door to a new evolution of unmanned aircraft integration into our National Airspace System (NAS).

The FAA has several hurdles to overcome before broadening BVLOS flights. The agency’s biggest concern is positional and spatial awareness for separation and collision avoidance; on the part of the sUAS, manned aircraft, and Air Traffic Control facilities (ATC). Part of the solution may be the integration of ADS-B transceivers and microtransponders that will allow ATC controllers and pilots to “see” the location of UAVs on their radars and flight displays, while also allowing UAV operators to see the location of air traffic on their ground control displays. However, this is just one piece of the puzzle.

Another piece is having reliable datalinks that can support BVLOS operations. Certain radio frequencies work better than others in terms of data transfer and range, and you can easily fly many miles from the GCS if you are using advanced LOS radio communication equipment. However, for true range and enhanced security, satellite communications may be needed. Also, because the aircraft will be operating well beyond the visual sight of the operator, practical training and certification standards (new licenses from the FAA) will need to be developed to assess a UAS operator’s ability to safely coordinate their respective systems in order to aviate and navigate using advanced flight displays and control stations.

Finally, there may be a need for UAS pilots to communicate with ATC facilities. If so, training in aviation communications, protocols and hardware/software solutions that will allow operators to talk with tower controllers hundreds of miles away will most likely also be part of the solution that will lead to the FAA authorizing BVLOS operations on a more regular basis.

The Bottom Line

Obtaining a commercial UAV pilot certification can be used as the first step toward an end-to-end solution for the daily operations of surveyors and geospatial professionals. Be sure to know the rules, understand the limitations and get proper training to launch your commercial drone. Knowing what you can and cannot do while flying is crucial to reap the benefits of this emerging technology.