Hiring Unlicensed Drone ‘Pilots’ Can Result In Penalties

I have a lot of realtor friends, I mean…a staggering number.  Inevitably, when they have a new listing, some sweet drone footage of the property is online within days, hoping to woo would be home buyers with aerial views of the home and surrounding scenic beauty.  Anyone who has spent any time in the drone industry knows that real estate photography/videography is one of the most saturated segments of the market.  This is due, in large part, to the fact that a vast majority of realtors do not verify the credentials of those they hire.  This has allowed a large number of unlicensed / uninsured drone operators to flood the market with low-cost offerings (some as low as $40 per house.)

So, why should a realtor/roof inspector/client of any sort worry about the credentials of the drone pilot?  Paying Little Timmy Downthestreet* $40 to shoot photos/videos with his Phantom is way better than paying a licensed, insured pilot $125/hr for the ‘same’ work…right? As long as the photos turn out well, who cares where they came from.

Well, unless you just love fines, you should care!

“The pilot would face a fine of $1,100 per violation…while the person who causes the operation could be liable for a fine of $11,000…” 

Why Should I Care?

It’s (somewhat) common knowledge that operating a drone for commercial purposes without a license can result in civil penalties (read: fines) of up to $1,100 (per occurrence) from the FAA.  However, it is a lesser known fact that you can be fined for hiring someone without an FAA license.  Ignorance is not a defense for this either; as the FAA puts the burden of verification squarely on the shoulders of the client.  

To make this even worse, the client can actually face penalties that are 10X that of the unlicensed ‘pilot.’  So if you have Little Timmy Downthestreet fly over 4 houses for you, he could face fines of up to $4,400, while you’re stuck taking out a second mortgage to cover your fines of $44,000!  If you buy your own drone and fly for work without a license, it is possible that you could be hit with both sets of penalties.  Additionally, if the crack Ace you’ve hired accidentally crashes into something or worse…someone; guess who is liable.  It is highly unlikely that Timmy has liability insurance since most drone insurers will not cover someone without a license.

“I had no idea!!” is what I usually hear when I tell my realtor friends about this.  They then say, “How do I know for sure a pilot is legal?”

Always Ask For:

  • 1) Ask to see the pilot’s FAA Remote Pilot Certificate (drone license), and whether they hold any other FAA licenses.  If they are unlicensed, find another pilot.

  • 2) Ask the pilot for a Certificate of Insurance (COI). If the job is large, complex, or otherwise high risk, it is not unreasonable to ask to be listed as an Additional Insured.

  • 3) Ask the pilot whether he/she will require any Part 107 Waiver(s) to complete the job.  These waivers include flights in controlled airspace, nighttime operations, operations over people, and several other restrictions.  While the process is getting better, some waivers can still take up to 90+ days to get approved so it is important to know ahead of time if they will be necessary.  (LAANC is speeding this up but is only available in some areas right now.)

  • 4) Ask the pilot about their safety and experience.  How long have they been in business?  Have they ever had an incident on a job?  Do they have backup equipment if there is a failure?  Do they fly with a Visual Observer?  A good Drone Pilot should be able (and willing) to answer any safety-related questions you may have.

Standard Enforcement?

It should be noted that as of today, there are not roving bands of jackbooted ‘FAA Police’ roughing up rogue drone pilots.  In fact, the actual enforcement of this law has been woefully lax but that doesn’t mean it will remain so in the future.  With over 1 million drones registered with the FAA (and an overwhelming majority of them being ‘hobbyist’) the government is actively working on ways to ensure the safety and security of our every busier skies.  As the number of reported near-misses and UAS related incidents continues to skyrocket, we can expect the leash to tighten up in short order.

So, to protect yourself, protect your company, and protect those who share the skies; make sure that your drone pilot is properly licensed…or better yet, get licensed yourself!  

*Little Timmy Downthestreet is a fictional character and any resemblance to an actual person, alive or dead, is purely accidental.

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