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The risks for using a non-licensed drone pilot.

We talk a lot about the fact that I am a licensed drone pilot and am current on my Part 107 and Trust Certificate. But, there is more information about the importance of following Part 107, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rules for commercial drone pilots in the U.S. Obviously, these regulations are essential for safety reasons, and they help ensure the smooth operation of the National Airspace System (NAS). But there’s another important reason to abide by these regulations: failing to do so carries the risk of severe consequences, including hefty fines.

We don’t often discuss the potential consequences of failing to follow Part 107, but the stakes are high. Drone law penalties span a range of effects, but that doesn’t mean drone pilots aren’t accountable to the law — especially for repeated or deliberate offenders.

Let’s examine the potential outcomes of breaking the FAA’s drone rules. Then, we’ll discuss the proper way to get approval to safely and legally go beyond specific provisions with a Part 107 waiver.

Legal consequences for violating Part 107 drone laws

There are several levels at which drone laws can be enforced. First, it starts with local enforcement. Drone pilots may need to realize that local laws apply on top of Part 107 rules in many areas, carrying penalties that vary by jurisdiction. These local drone laws may include protections against harassment, flights over private property, or even noise ordinances.

For example, in 2015, the owner of an aerial videography company lost control of his drone over a parade and knocked a bystander unconscious. The pilot was ultimately found guilty of reckless endangerment and sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Even though Part 107 did not apply in this case since it had not yet been released, the pilot was found guilty of breaking a local law and was prosecuted accordingly.

Different provisions of Part 107 carry varying weights of penalties. For example, Part 107 requires commercial drone pilots to obtain and maintain a current remote pilot certificate. (Side note: recreational drone pilots must also pass a free online test known as TRUST and carry their completion certificate when flying. Not sure if you’re a recreational or commercial pilot? Check the FAA website to find out.) The operator must present their pilot certificate to authorized personnel upon request, which includes any federal, state, or local law enforcement officer. According to the FAA, “Operating an aircraft without registration or any necessary airman certification can result in a penalty with a maximum of 3 years in prison and - or a $250,000 fine.”

Flying drones in emergency crew operating areas may also result in stiff penalties. According to the FAA, “Congress authorized the FAA to impose a civil penalty of not more than $20,000 for anyone who operates a drone and deliberately or recklessly interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response efforts.”

That source notes that the civil penalty can be up to $20,000 per violation, including revocation or suspension of a pilot certificate. And interfering with firefighting efforts on public lands is a federal crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison. So think twice before flying anywhere near a wildfire or emergency services personnel.

These penalties are severe, but there’s a reason. Enforcement of Part 107 and relevant laws helps protect people and property and promotes safe aviation of all types. And with more than 252,000 registered Part 107 certified drone pilots, it’s essential to ensure that people operate by the rules as the drone industry continues to grow.

But what if completing a job would require you to go beyond the limits of Part 107 — say, to fly beyond the pilot's visual line of sight (BVLOS)?

Need to go beyond the drone regulations? Apply for a Part 107 waiver from the FAA

The FAA does provide a mechanism for getting permission to go beyond the provisions of certain sections of Part 107. For example, companies who apply for and receive a Part 107 waiver from the FAA have permission to operate in ways that would not be otherwise allowed.

Operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft (although in a sparsely populated area, no waiver is required to operate from a moving vehicle or watercraft)

Operation beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS)

Using a visual observer without following all the requirements for a visual observer

Operation of multiple drones by one pilot

Operation without yielding the right of way to other aircraft

Operation over people

Operation in certain controlled airspace

Operation outside standard limitations for:

Maximum ground speed

Maximum altitude

Minimum visibility

Minimum distance from clouds

Operation over moving vehicles

For drone operators interested in flying without one or more of these restrictions, you can visit FAA DroneZone and submit a Part 107 waiver or authorization. However, it’s important to do some prep work ahead of time. You will be required to justify your need to go beyond these regulations and explain how you will ensure an equivalent level of safety with additional measures.

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