CFI Brief: 300+ Drones (sUAS)!

If you watched the Super Bowl over the weekend you may have noticed the more than 300 drones during the halftime show. Yes those were really drones in the sky, however they were not actually flying during the halftime show. The entire drone sequence was filmed earlier in the week because of FAA flight-over-people restrictions and a 34.5 mile radius temporary flight restriction (TFR) that was placed over NRG stadium (where the Super Bowl was played). Regardless, it came across on TV as pretty spectacular.


You may be wondering: 300 drones? Does that mean 300 plus remote pilot operators flying these? Fortunately no, that was not these case, as I am sure you can imagine the confusion that would take place. These small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) were computer programed and all 300 operated by only a handful of people under special FAA exemption. Regardless, the aerial drone show and operation did require at least one Remote Pilot in Command (Remote PIC) to assume over-all authority.

Remote PIC: A person who holds a remote pilot certificate with an sUAS rating and has the final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of an sUAS operation conducted under part 107.

If your dream or goal is to one day commercially operate 300+ drones (or even just one), the first step is to obtain your Remote Pilot Certificate. Below is an excerpt from the regulations chapter of the ASA UAS Remote Pilot Test Prep Book. This specific book will prepare you for the FAA Knowledge Exam required to earn a Remote Pilot Certificate with Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS).

Remote Pilot Privileges

The remote PIC is directly responsible for and is the final authority as to the operation of the sUAS conducted under 14 CFR Part 107. He or she must:

  • Be designated before each flight (but can change during the flight).
  • Ensure that the operation poses no undue hazard to people, aircraft, or property in the event of a loss of control of the aircraft for any reason.
  • Operate the small unmanned aircraft to ensure compliance with all applicable provisions and regulations.

Being able to safely operate the sUAS relies on, among other things, the physical and mental capabilities of the remote PIC, person manipulating the controls, visual observer (VO), and any other direct participant in the sUAS operation. While the person manipulating the controls of an sUAS and the VO are not required to obtain an airman medical certificate, they may not participate in the operation of an sUAS if they know or have reason to know that they have a physical or mental condition that could interfere with the safe operation of the sUAS.

A person may not operate or act as a remote PIC or VO in the operation of more than one unmanned aircraft (UA) at the same time. Additionally, Part 107 allows transfer of control of an sUAS between certificated remote pilots. Two or more certificated remote pilots transferring operational control (i.e., the remote PIC designation) to each other may do so only if they are both capable of maintaining visual line of sight (VLOS) of the UA and without loss of control (LOC). For example, one remote pilot may be designated the remote PIC at the beginning of the operation, and then at some point in the operation another remote pilot may take over as remote PIC by positively communicating that he or she is doing so. As the person responsible for the safe operation of the UAS, any remote pilot who will assume remote PIC duties should meet all of the requirements of Part 107, including awareness of factors that could affect the flight.

Supporting Crew Roles

A person who does not hold a remote pilot certificate or a remote pilot that that has not met the recurrent testing/training requirements of Part 107 may operate the flight controls of an sUAS under Part 107, as long as he or she is directly supervised by a remote PIC and the remote PIC has the ability to immediately take direct control of the sUAS. This ability is necessary to ensure that the remote PIC can quickly address any hazardous situation before an accident occurs.

The remote PIC can take over the flight controls by using a number of different methods. For example, the operation could involve a “buddy box” type of system that uses two control stations (CS): one for the person manipulating the flight controls, and one for the remote PIC that allows the remote PIC to override the other CS and immediately take direct control of the small UA. Another method involves the remote PIC standing close enough to the person manipulating the flight controls to be able to physically take over the CS from that person. A third method could employ the use of an automation system whereby the remote PIC could immediately engage that system to put the small UA in a pre-programmed “safe” mode (such as in a hover, in a holding pattern, or “return home”).

An autonomous operation is when the autopilot onboard the UA performs certain functions without direct pilot input. For example, the remote pilot can input a flight route into the CS, which then sends it to the autopilot that is installed in the small UA. During autonomous flight, flight control inputs are made by components onboard the aircraft, not from a CS. Thus, the remote PIC could lose the control link to the small UA and the aircraft would still continue to fly the programmed mission and/or return home to land.

When the UA is flying autonomously, the remote PIC also must have the ability to change routing or altitude, or to command the aircraft to land immediately. The ability to direct the small UA may be through manual manipulation of the flight controls or through commands using automation. The remote PIC must retain the ability to direct the small UA to ensure compliance with the requirements of Part 107. There are different methods a remote PIC may utilize to direct the small UA to ensure compliance with Part 107. For example, the remote PIC may transmit a command for the autonomous aircraft to climb, descend, land now, proceed to a new waypoint, enter an orbit pattern, or return to home. Any of these methods may be used to satisfactorily avoid a hazard or give right-of-way. The use of automation does not allow a person to simultaneously operate more than one small UA.

The role of visual observers (VOs) is to alert the rest of the crew about potential hazards during sUAS operations. The use of VOs is optional. However, the remote PIC may use one or more VOs to supplement situational awareness and VLOS responsibilities while the remote PIC is conducting other mission-critical duties (such as checking displays). The remote PIC must make certain that all VOs are:

  • Positioned in a location where they are able to see the sUAS continuously and sufficiently to maintain VLOS.
  • Possess a means to effectively communicate the sUAS position and the position of other aircraft to the remote PIC and person manipulating the controls.

If you are interested in operating drones for fun or commercial endeavors, you can use much of your manned-aircraft knowledge to help you prepare for the Remote Pilot FAA Knowledge Exam. You don’t need an endorsement to take this test and upon successful completion (score of 70% or better) you simply complete the online application form to receive your new Remote Pilot certificate. Learn more by checking these Remote Pilot resources:

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