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Do you really need a pilot’s license to fly a drone?

Ian McDonald, Aeryon Labs' VP of product marketing pilots the drone Aeryon Scout used by public safety, commercial and industrial users to reliably collect high quality aerial imagery and data in Waterloo, Ontario, March 11, 2014. "For those who are trying to get a new tech business off the ground, get it funded, and not get lost in the shadow of Silicon Valley, Waterloo can be the best place to get your company on the map," said Sean McCabe, vice-president of engineering at drone manufacturer Aeryon Labs Inc. Picture taken March 11, 2014.
Reuters/Euan Rocha
Whoa, whoa, whoa: You got a license for that thing?
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The rules being considered for commercial drone flight have been leaked by US airspace regulators. While they’re mostly common sense—like keeping your drone within sight—one requirement is likely to have the fledgling industry up in arms: Drone operators must train as aircraft pilots.

The long-awaited rules for autonomous aircraft under 55 lbs. are expected to be finalized next year. But rather than a boon for a new industry, they could be a barrier to entry. Drones come in all shapes and sizes, and as anyone who has picked up a Phantom DJI or another consumer model knows, they can be very simple to pilot. But the FAA rules appear set to treat 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) battery-powered drones the same as 18 kg (40 lbs.) gasoline-powered models, requiring hundreds of hours of flight training for commercial users.

These rules won’t apply to recreational users, so you could see teenagers using a drone to film a school project in one backyard, while next door, a realtor who wants aerial video of a new property has to hire a certified pilot to use the same device for essentially the same purpose. (Canada, by contrast, seems to be addressing safety concerns with a blanket approval of commercial drones under 2 kg that follow basic flight rules.)

The new FAA rules also don’t begin to address the other major concern raised by autonomous aerial vehicles: The question of privacy, and where drone footage can and cannot be shot.

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