License to fly

Features - Technology

Make sure you’re on the right side of the law when it comes to drone use.

March 7, 2017

Photos by James Robbins

The release of permanent flight regulations1 for the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) in August 2016 has opened the door for widespread use of these aircraft in the nursery industry and other agricultural applications. In the near future, sUAS will assist in a variety of tasks including: 1) crop monitoring (nutrient, water, pest, general health), 2) chemical/nutrient applications, 3) asset tracking and management (e.g. greenhouse frames, irrigation systems, fencing, roofs), 4) crop inventory management (e.g. count, size, quality, crop insurance), and 5) marketing and sales.

If you have purchased a drone for commercial use, what do you need to do next? To be legal, there are two things you need to complete: aircraft registration and remote pilot certification.

Aircraft registration

Whether you fly your aircraft for hobby or commercial applications, you must register your aircraft if its take-off weight is more than 0.55 pounds or less than 55 pounds. The sUAS registration involves a simple online process ( Once you create an account and enter your information, you will immediately receive your aircraft registration number. The aircraft registration cost is currently $5.

Remote pilot certification

Drone uses include crop monitoring, chemical and nutrient application, and inventory management.

A major advancement for commercial users in the U.S. was the issuance of the permanent flight regulations by the FAA in August 2016. Referred to as ‘Part 107’ (14 CFR part 107), these permanent regulations apply to a broad spectrum of commercial uses of sUAS. It is important to stress is that if growers, consultants, landscapers, etc. are using a sUAS in any way for their business, they need to have remote pilot certification, otherwise, they are out of compliance with FAA regulations. Remember that the FAA considers a farmer’s use of a sUAS as a commercial use, even when the aircraft is being used on their own farm.

Test preparation

For those that have no prior exposure to the flying of an aircraft, preparing for the remote pilot exam may seem like studying a foreign language. You should reserve at least 30 hours to prepare for the test. A number of vendors provide test preparation materials including sample test questions and materials. Test preparation materials can vary from $0 to $300. The FAA has a portal ( with lots of resources including a Knowledge Test Study Guide and sample test questions.

Taking the test

To pass your FAA exam, you must receive a grade of 70 percent or higher on the online test.

The cost of the exam is currently $150, and you can locate the closest testing center here: Most testing centers require making an appointment to take the test. The test is online and you are allotted two hours. Although the FAA advertises the test consists of 60 questions, users have reported tests of 63 and 64 questions. Once you have completed the exam, you will receive your grade immediately. To pass, you must receive a grade of 70 percent or higher. The testing center will print a computer test report, including your exam ID and score. The form indicates to “please allow 24-48 hours for your examination results to upload,” but you can begin the next step which is to log in or start a new registration at the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA).


Once you pass the test, you are almost home. The final step is to complete your remote pilot certification at another website ( To be clear, you can initiate (register) an account in IACRA before taking the test, however, for a new registration it is probably more logical to register after passing the remote pilot exam. The IACRA application process should take about 15 minutes and there is no fee. If you do not already have a pilot license (private or commercial), your application will need to be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as a part of the application process. If you complete the online application process, you should receive a temporary certificate within a few days. The FAA indicates they will mail you a permanent certificate within six to eight weeks. If you already hold a pilot certificate issued under 14 CFR part 61, the process just described is slightly different and details can be found on the FAA website ( A more thorough overview of aircraft registration and remote pilot certification is available as a University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture CES Fact Sheet (

Dr. James Robbins is an extension professor at the University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture;

Disclaimer: This article summarizes particular aspects of the full rule, which went into effect Aug. 29, 2016. It is for educational purposes only and not meant to provide legal or regulatory advice for the safe and legal operation of any small unmanned aerial system. It is the responsibility of the small unmanned aerial system user to read, understand and follow all items covered in this rule. Users are also subject to state laws in which they operate.

1Discussed in the August 2016 issue of Nursery Management: Birds-eye View.