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How to get your drone license (and legally make money)

The FAA's new commercial drone rules look pretty daunting. We'll walk you through.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Aerial photography. Real estate tours. Drone burrito delivery.

Imagine the money you could make (and fun you could have!) if you flew for profit.

Sadly, drone businesses aren't legal in the United States unless the government makes an exception for you -- or unless you get your own drone license under the FAA's brand-new rules.

Starting Monday, August 29, you can apply for your very own license by passing a multiple-choice test and paying a small fee. No experience necessary!

What, you mean I can't just sell my drone photos already?

Nope! You could get fined $1,100 (or more) for operating your unmanned aerial system (UAS) for business purposes without FAA approval.

What is a Remote Pilot Certificate?

It's the official name for the drone license I've been talking about. With it, you can legally fly drones with intention of making a profit -- either by selling the footage, delivering goods and everything in between. You still have to follow a lot of restrictions when you fly...but more on those in a bit.

Prosumer camera drones like the popular DJI Phantom start at around $500 -- but the sky's the limit on price.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

What if I'm just flying for fun?

You don't need the certificate...but you do still need to register your drone if it weighs over half a pound (0.55lb to be precise).

Oh, but if you're a drone racer -- weaving through obstacles with a nifty set of first-person-view glasses on your head -- you'll still need that Remote Pilot Certificate. At least that's what the FAA tells Forbes.

OK, I want to make money. What do I need to get my license?

  • Be at least 16 years old
  • Have a valid government-issued picture ID with your name, address and signature
  • Make an appointment to take the knowledge test at a test center near you
  • Pay $150 to the testing firm
  • Study
  • Pass the test
  • Wait up to 48 hours for your test score to get uploaded
  • Apply for your Remote Pilot Certificate (using the code from your successful test as proof)
  • Complete a TSA background check
  • Print out a temporary Remote Pilot Certificate (while you wait for the real one to be delivered by mail)
  • Register your drone (maybe do this first?) and start flying!

OK, that does sound like a lot. Let's break it down.

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How do I get an appointment for a Remote Pilot Certificate?

You need to call, email or submit an online request form with one of the two companies supervising the test -- not the test center.

CATS (Computer Assisted Testing Service):

  • 1-800-947-4228, then press 3 (Monday to Friday, 5:30 a.m. PT to 5 p.m. PT, Saturday to Sunday 7 a.m. PT to 3:30 p.m. PT)
  • Online registration and payment (CATS calls you back within 24 hours to schedule)

PSI (formerly LaserGrade):

  • 1-800-211-2753, then press 1 twice (Monday to Friday, 5 a.m. PT to 5 p.m. PT, Saturday 5 a.m. PT to 2 p.m. PT)
  • (PSI replies within two business hours)
  • Online request form (PSI replies within two business hours)

According to testing centers we called, CATS and PSI handle pretty much everything, including assigning you a test center and accepting your $150 payment.

The DJI Phantom 4 taking flight.


How long is the waiting list?

In the San Francisco Bay Area, it's not too bad as of August 26. One testing center told us they were booked for two weeks, another said they had openings later in the week.

Is there a testing center near me?

Probably! There are 686 of them across the United States. Check for yourself in the FAA's full, official list of test centers (PDF).

You'll need to call CATS or PSI to get your appointment, though. While the FAA's website says you can just walk in, testing centers in the San Francisco Bay Area told us we needed to arrange everything with CATS or PSI first.

How hard is the test?

You get two hours to answer 60 multiple-choice questions, and you only need to answer 70 percent of them correctly to pass! (You can totally miss 18 questions and still succeed.)

But these aren't exactly easy questions. You'll probably need to study.

Oh yeah? How hard can the questions be?

While monitoring the Cooperstown CTAF you hear an aircraft announce that they are midfield left downwind to RWY 13. Where would the aircraft be relative to the runway? (Refer to FAA-CT-8080-2G, Figure 26, area 2.)

A. The aircraft is East.

B. The aircraft is South.

C. The aircraft is West.

That's just one of the FAA's sample questions. Find more here (PDF).

What's the best way to prepare for the test?

The FAA actually offers a free two-hour training course (register here first) to get you up to speed, plus an 87-page study guide (PDF).

But you may need more help than that, because the FAA's course materials don't explain some of the simplest concepts in plain English.

For instance, would you believe you can answer the sample question above without looking at a map? I didn't figure it out until I found this third-party study guide by drone manufacturer 3DR.

I passed the test! Where do I apply for the actual certificate?

  • Register here first (pick Applicant) and fill out your personal information. (You can ignore the Airman Certificate Number and Date of Issuance fields)
  • Log into the site using your new username and password
  • Apply for the certificate here; pick Pilot from the first dropdown menu, then click on the Remote Pilot certification

If you get lost, here's a complete set of instructions.

The Yuneeq Typhoon H drone.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Now that I've got my certificate, I can fly anywhere, anytime, yes?

Not so much -- as you'll see when you study, there are a lot of rules (PDF) about when and where you can fly your drone.

Unless you get a 107 waiver (and you need to apply for those months in advance), you can't fly:

  • At night
  • Over people
  • Higher than 400 feet (unless you're within 400 feet of a building; skyscraper climbing is OK)
  • Further away than you can see with your naked eye
  • At speeds over 100 miles per hour
  • From a moving vehicle (or inside a covered stationary vehicle)
  • Within five miles of an airport -- unless you clear it with air traffic control using this tool at the FAA's website.

Also, you need to register your drone (if it weighs between 0.55 and 55 pounds), do pre-flight checks before you fly and report any accidents that hurt people or do $500 worth of damage to property.

What if my drone weighs more than 55 pounds?

You can't do it with a drone license, or even a 107 waiver. Only a 333 exemption (which are hard to get, can take a long time and generally require a real pilot's license to fly) can let you pilot something that heavy.

What if my company already has a Section 333 Exemption?

Lucky you! But in many cases, you can't actually fly a drone for profit under the 333 unless you're a certified pilot. The Remote Pilot Certificate is another option.

What if I've already got a pilot's license?

If you want your Remote Pilot Certificate, you can actually skip the knowledge test and take the online training course instead. You'll still need to fill out a form, make an in-person appointment and have completed a flight review within the last two years, so it's not necessarily any easier.

Here's a step-by-step guide for existing pilots.

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Could I really start a drone burrito delivery service?

Yes, the FAA says package delivery is OK -- but it'd be tough! Particularly given the rule about needing to keep the drone within eyesight, and the one about drones needing to weigh 55 pounds or less. It'd probably be easier to just hand someone their food.

How about a journalist covering breaking news stories?

That could be tough, too. You can't fly over people without a waiver, and the FAA says those will take months. But if you're not reporting live, or not directly over people... the FAA says media companies can do it.

What if I have awesome video goggles and a camera on the drone? Do I really need to watch it with my actual eyes?

Someone needs to: either you, or a second person who can act as a visual observer. Them's the rules!

Which drone should I buy?

If you've never flown before, buy a toy drone. Not kidding -- you'll learn the basic motor skills without any risk of hurting people or turning a $1,000+ aerial camera into scrap. Then, pick one of our top-rated prosumer drones that matches your needs and budget.

Is that it?

So far, so good...but there's still a lot to think about. Maybe you'll want to insure your drone against damage, and yourself against liability? You'll definitely want to practice flying and camera skills, and you'll need to figure out how to convince potential clients that you're right for the job.

Lastly, know that your Remote Pilot Certificate is only good for two years. You'll need to pass another knowledge test once that's done.