Last summer, the FAA relaxed the regulations for becoming a drone pilot, making it much easier for hobbyists and enthusiast to get into the game. At the same time, the opportunity to fly drones professionally is growing rapidly, as more and more industries are using drones to collect data than ever before. According to Glassdoor, drone operators earn about $33,500 a year nationally, and more than $60,000 in metropolitan areas like DC -- making drone flying a new and attractive employment option. Since much of the work is contractual or seasonal, becoming a drone pilot can provide good supplemental income and work schedule flexibility -- with little training. But before you sign up for online drone piloting classes, here are a few things you should know about the industry according according to Jonathan Rupprecht, Esq., an aviation attorney and FAA certificated commercial pilot & flight instructor at Rupprecht Law -- a firm that specializes in "helping individuals and businesses navigate drone law."
1. Drones May Be Regulated (And Not Just By The FAA)
"We all understand that since drones are considered 'aircraft,' a bunch of the federal aviation regulations are now being brought to bear on drones," Rupprecht explains. "But other laws and regulations come into play as well, such as the Export Administration Regulations, the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR), and the Federal Communications Commission regulations, to name a few. ITAR in particular is nothing to play around with. Violations of ITAR have criminal penalties. Recently, Bard College's Center for the Study of the Drone published an article detailing multiple prosecutions under ITAR for certain types of violations."
It's not just the drones that are regulated, and you need to be careful, especially if you are the DIY type or have purchased a product from China. Rupprecht notes: "A common problem is when drone operators modify the radio transmitter on the ground station or in the drone to put radio transmissions above the legal limit or on another frequency than is licensed," Rupprecht notes. "This sometimes puts them in violation of the FCC regulations. To make matters worse, sometimes the equipment the drone operator might have purchased online, or directly from China, may be illegal from the get go. FCC recently cited Hobbyking for selling transmitters that were not authorized or properly labeled according to FCC regulations."
Knowing which laws apply to your work with drones is important, and you should double check before buying an unknown product or building something yourself.
2. Drone Operators Services May Be Regulated (Also Not Just By The FAA)
In addition to the drones themselves, sometimes the services that drone operators provide are regulated, too. "Two great examples of these regulations have to do are surveying/mapping and with the practice of law. There are people in the drone industry talking about surveying/mapping with your drone, but very little is said about the regulations regarding surveying/mapping. Most states have laws that prohibit a person from doing unlicensed surveying, but most beginning drone operators don't know this, and most likely won't be told this by those in the drone industry selling their drones, apps, and trainings," Rupprecht warns.
He continues, "Typically, the drone operators find out later when some licensed surveyor threatens to report them to the surveyor licensing board or worse yet, the state surveyor licensing board sends the drone operator a nasty letter. I read one of these letters sent from the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists to a drone operator. Hopefully, more states will follow Oregon's model and create a task force to educate drone operators about the business they are getting into, before they invest time, effort and money."
Another area that can get drone pilots into trouble is giving legal advice to others. "The other service that is regulated is the practice of law," Rupprecht notes. "Most states make this a crime. The definition of practice of law is intentionally kept very broad and vague to capture all sorts of 'fringe legal activity'. Where drone operators, or consultants, get into trouble is they basically 'act' like an attorney and advise other people on the law or go so far as to prepare legal paperwork and file it on behalf of others -- "333 exemptions" being a prime example. [N.B., Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) affects unmanned aircraft performing commercial operations, prior to a future Small UAS Rule being put into place.] It is one thing to do your own legal work and quite another to perform the unlicensed practice of law on others."
3. You Are Operating in a Regulated Environment.
Sometimes, it is easy to turn a blind eye to regulations, but Rupprecht warns aspiring drone pilots to be very careful. "Yes, I know it is annoying that the FAA takes a long time to do certain things, and says no to other things, but you need to accept it," Rupprecht urges. "You've chosen to come into a new branch of the aviation industry. The sooner you realize that fighting the system individually does NOT work and that you are operating in a highly regulated environment, the quicker you'll be happier, and more profitable."