Pilots-for-hire cramming for test as age of drones arrives

Thousands of would-be drone pilots are racing to get licensed under new U.S. regulations that have opened an aerial stampede.

More than 3,300 signed up to take the test on Monday, the first day it was available, and the Federal Aviation Administration estimates the number of drone operators-for-hire may exceed the nation’s 171,000 private pilots within a year.

Aspiring drone pilots are able to take exams at an FAA-approved testing center. There are six centers in Nevada:

— Cactus Aviation located at 3500 Executive Terminal Drive #250 in Henderson.

— The Aviation Institute of Maintenance located at 5870 S Eastern Ave in Las Vegas.

— 702 Helicopters located at 2634 Airport Dr #101 in North Las Vegas.

— ATP INC located at 2722 Perimeter Rd #216 in North Las Vegas.

— Elite Aviation located at 2634 Airport Dr, #103 in North Las Vegas.

— Reno Flying Service Inc located at 895 S. Rock Blvd. in Reno.

The new regulations went into effect Monday and permit anyone 16 or older to fly for hire if they pass a written knowledge test and background check. They can only fly drones during daylight, within sight, and no higher than 400 feet (122 meters) from the ground.

The rules replace ad hoc standards and a system of waivers that the industry said had hindered its growth. The rules don’t apply to hobbyists, who can fly without a license.

“These aircraft truly have the potential to transform how we fly and they also offer many potential benefits to society,” Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said Monday at a briefing on the new law.

The FAA Monday morning had already granted 76 waivers allowing commercial operations beyond the law’s basic restrictions, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at the briefing. Most were for basic requests to fly at night with special lighting, Huerta said.

Railroad BNSF obtained permission to fly long drone missions to inspect track. PrecisionHawk USA, which provides unmanned flights for agriculture, got FAA approval for flights within two to three miles of an operator. Cable news channel CNN also will be allowed to fly over people for photography with drones that have safeguards to prevent injuries, Huerta said.

The appeal is clear. Drones can be used by farmers to monitor fields, by telecom companies to inspect cell phone towers, and by media outlets to videotape news events — often with greater ease and lower cost than using helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft. Industry officials at a Congressional briefing on Aug. 24 predicted insurance, construction, agriculture and electrical power companies, which have been cautiously exploring applications for unmanned aircraft, would now leap into such operations. The regulations also open the door to more small operators and service companies that fly drones for hire, they said.

Before now, the FAA had required commercial drone operators to have a traditional pilots license, something that takes months and costs thousands of dollars to obtain. Now they simply have to pass a test costing $150, though some are opting to pay more for study courses.

Many are also wondering how the FAA will handle an expected flood of requests for expanded uses of drones. Because the technology is evolving so rapidly, the agency said it will grant waivers for operations outside the new limits if applicants could prove they would be safe.

When asked how long that waiver process will take, Earl Lawrence, head of FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, said, “It depends on what you ask for.”

Simple waivers allowing such things as limited nighttime flights will be approved faster than more complex requests, he said.

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