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FAA Gives Overburdened TSA Another Job: Drone Pilot Vetting

FAA’s Part 107 regulations create a structure to integrate commercial small unmanned aircraft systems (also known as sUAS or drones) into the National Airspace System (NAS). As part of this structure, the FAA has given the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) a new and potentially time-consuming task: vetting commercial sUAS pilots who do not already have a certificate to operate manned flights. The proliferation of new applications underscores the importance of having an adequately staffed and funded TSA so integration of commercial sUAS is not delayed.

Part 107 creates a new UAS-specific pilot certificate, separate from pilot certifications for manned aircraft. To attain a remote pilot certificate, the applicant must be at least 16 years of age, be English-language proficient, and pass an aeronautical knowledge test. After passing the test, the TSA vets the applicants to determine whether they represent a security risk to the NAS. TSA screening is only required for new applicants—pilots already certificated under Part 61 are not required to be vetted, as they already cleared a background check.

As industries across the country begin to incorporate commercial sUAS into their businesses, one major concern is that the already-overburdened TSA might cause a delay for applicants. Long TSA airport security lines have become headline news over the past few months, highlighting the agency’s staffing shortage and prompting Congressional oversight hearings. Industry stakeholders eager to incorporate sUAS technology will be carefully reviewing the TSA vetting process to ensure that it doesn’t create a bottleneck for remote pilot applications. The benefits of Part 107 hinge on the ability of the TSA to effectively vet applicants and make commercial operations widely available.

The TSA is incorporating a similar standard to the well-established process for vetting pilots of manned aircraft, and which provides many layers of administrative and judicial review. As long as the resources are available to review the initial glut of applications, the process itself should be similar to the current system to vet pilots.