Starting An Industrial Drone Program: The FAA Process

By now, you’ve heard about how drones are helping commercial operations, and you may think you’re missing the boat, but in reality, less than 5% of businesses have officially adopted this technology, out of the many millions in the US.


As someone who has spent the last five years educating people about the benefits of drones, the shift from “this is a toy” to “I want to know more” to “I want to buy one” is happening before our very eyes, and the message is clear - this technology is here to stay. So if you’re interested in developing a UAS program for your organization, what do you need to know?


There are three major parts to developing an in-house drone program: understanding FAA drone enforcement, selecting and purchasing the right equipment for the task, and training. Over the next three blogs we'll cover all of these in-depth. Let's start with dealing with the FAA.


The FAA Process
Understanding the FAA process from the very beginning is the best way to start your journey towards developing a UAS program. The rules can be complex and confusing, and if you begin by simply buying a drone and “figuring it out later,” your chances of success are much lower.


I’ve fielded countless calls from people who purchased a drone from Best Buy or Amazon, only to immediately crash it, and reinforce what their superiors have said all along - drones are toys, and toys have no place in business.


So let’s dispel that myth permanently. Drones, when used in the context of specific industrial applications are NOT toys, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. They are unmanned aircraft, and they will be operating in real national airspace.


From a legal perspective, there are three ways to operate a drone legally in the United States: as a hobbyist, as an FAA-approved drone operator under Part 107 commercial operator rules, and as a public agency under a Certificate of Authorization, or COA. As a commercial drone operator, the only legal route available to you is Part 107 certification.


Part 107
Part 107 is designed to cover commercial operation of a drone. It requires you to be a certified operator, operate in day time, within visual line of sight between drone and operator, under 400’ in altitude, and in uncontrolled airspace.


To become certified as a Part 107 operator, there is a 60 question written test, and a TSA background check. The certification is valid for 2 years, and you are required to re-take the exam to renew your certification.


It's important to keep a few things in mind with Part 107:


First, as a Part 107 operator, the responsibility for the flight falls on you as the “remote pilot in command” and not on your company, so if something bad were to happen, you’d be the first one getting the call from the FAA.


The other consideration is that Part 107 only allows for flight in uncontrolled airspace - otherwise known as “Class G.” If you work in a rural jurisdiction with no towered airports, it’s very likely that you’re within Class G airspace. But if you have more complex airspace, Part 107 will only allow you to fly in those areas with a waiver - which at the moment, can take 4 to 6 weeks to authorize. 


The next blog in this series will cover how to choose the best equipment for your department.


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