First: It’s easy and inexpensive to get a license.
You study the material, schedule your test, pay $150, and pass with a score of 70 or above. 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. The person without a license is not very serious about their business, and may have a higher risk tolerance than you should accept for your business.
Second: The pilot and client could get fined.
Civil Penalty Actions by the FAA can range from $1100 to $27500, but FAA communications have stated fines per flight of $1100 for the pilot and $11,000 for the client. To be honest, you do not hear much about FAA enforcement of UAS operations to this point, so it would be easy to take a risk that your pilot will not get caught, or 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 where I could get fined. As the FAA UAS program matures, I am sure the enforcement processes and infrastructure will as well.
Third: Liability Insurance
This is the most important reason to have a licensed pilot. Without a license, insurance companies will not issue liability insurance for drone operations. Hiring companies routinely ask for contractors to have liability insurance of $1 – $2 million, and would not dream of allowing a contractor on site without general liability coverage. But using an unlicensed drone pilot is hiring someone with $0 of liability insurance. Your own insurance probably has exclusions for UAS operations as well. Business general liability policies do not cover incidents involving drones (UAS), so it has to be added to the policy. Even if you hire a licensed drone pilot, you need to verify the pilot carries drone coverage and at the expected amount of coverage. Some companies will offer drone liability, but not at the same level as the overall general liability policy.
Now you know you want to hire a licensed drone pilot.
So how do you verify a drone pilot is licensed and insured?
- Check the FAA Airmen Registry and search for your pilot. Make sure you know the full name. In my case, I go by my middle name, but my first name is in the registry, so if someone searched for Dee they would not find me. 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.
- 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.
Hiring a licensed and insured drone pilot is the smart thing to do, and hopefully this article helps you identify them. You can see some of my work here.