Drone journalists watch as certificates expire during COVID-19 shutdowns

The Part 107 rules for unmanned aircraft require pilots flying drones for commercial purposes to renew their certification every two years. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closing of the bulk of the private contractor centers in the United States where drone pilots can go for testing and renewal.

A notice on the website of the main contractor, PSI, states: “The health and safety of our employees, clients, and candidates is of the utmost importance to PSI. As part of the global effort to contain the spread and mitigate the impact of the coronavirus, we have instituted enhanced procedures and test center closures in certain areas.”

The phrase “certain areas” is a bit of an understatement. Not only are more than 600 PSI testing centers closed, but other locations run by third parties are locked down.

The FAA does not keep a running public count of Part 107-certified pilots, but the latest estimates suggest more than 10,000 pilots will come up for re-certification in March and April during the period we know the testing centers are closed. That number will grow if the closings last into May and beyond. But the FAA has not issued extensions for expiring certificates, nor has it set up alternate ways for pilots to take the recurrent knowledge test to stay certified. Does that mean that drone journalists with expired certificates can’t fly for your newsroom?

The Part 107 rules actually allow for pilots to keep flying after their certification runs out. The Subpart B operating rules state: no person may manipulate the flight controls of a small unmanned aircraft system unless:

(1) That person has a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating issued pursuant to subpart C of this part and satisfies the requirements of § 107.65; or

(2) That person is under the direct supervision of a remote pilot in command and the remote pilot in command has the ability to immediately take direct control of the flight of the small unmanned aircraft.

The second part of that subsection shows the way for pilots to stay fresh and not lose their skills while they wait for the testing centers to reopen. As long as the newsroom can get one pilot on scene with a current Part 107 certification, that pilot can act as the remote pilot in command while the journalist with the lapsed certification still flies the drone. Many newsrooms prefer to send two-person teams into the field so there can be a visual observer on the scene. Managers can build drone teams to be sure there is always a pilot with a current certification in command.

The FAA claims to be working on a solution to this recertification roadblock. One silver lining is that, even if a pilot’s certificate lapses, that pilot will not have to take the longer initial exam again. Under FAA rules, all pilots who have been certified at one point take the shorter recurrent exam to renew their certificates.

Here are a few ideas for planning ahead in case another pandemic or other emergency shuts down the testing system again: 

  • Newsroom managers should keep track of their pilots’ certificate dates so there are no surprises when someone is due to take the test. Keeping that list handy would allow pilots who might have certificates expire during a looming crisis to get in and renew early. 

  • Staggering the dates when pilots in each shop take the initial test will prevent multiple expirations at the same time. 

  • When creating pairs of pilots as flying teams, group those pilots together who have different levels of experience. A pilot with years under her belt should be working with someone greener to share knowledge and build a mentoring relationship that will outlast the expiration date on any certificate.

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