Commercial Drones Facing Pilot Shortage

By Scott Spangler on June 8th, 2015

Vortex Drone session, 5/30/15 at Atlantic Aviation, PWK.To learn more about commercial drone operations, I recently attended a 4-hour introductory course for pilots conducted by Vortex UAS. The thorough presentation covered everything from history to the current legal landscape. What I did  not expect was to learn that commercial drones are facing a growing pilot shortage because they must be operated by an FAA certificated pilot.

Vortex UAS President Vince Donohue made it clear that there is no FAA certificate for drone operators (right now). But to receive a certificate of authorization for commercial operations under Section 333 FAA Modernization & Reform Act of 2012, commercial drones must be operated by an individual holding a private pilot certificate and current third-class medical. Explaining this opportunity to pilots is what led to Vortex’s introductory course.

The act did not explain the requirement for a certificated pilot, but there are two logical assumptions. First, certificated pilots have demonstrated their knowledge of aviation and airspace regulations, and they have some experience operating in the National Airspace System. Second, with a certificate involved, the FAA can enforce violations of those regs.

This led one of the participants, who holds an airline transport pilot certificate to ask if an action from a drone operation might affect his day job, guesses are all Donohue and the participants had to go on. And given the reality that a certificate action is a certificate action no matter what the pilot is flying, the answer is probably yes. An ATP himself, Donohue recommended that professional pilots assess the risks before flying drones.

At a recent AUVSI event, the shortage of FAA-certificated pilots to operate commercial drones was a frequent topic, Donohue said. Evidence supporting this shortage, and the booming number of companies applying for Section 333 exemptions (including Vortex UAS), came with news that the FAA is accelerating exemption approvals with summary grants.

In addition, the FAA made two more important changes to the Section 333 exemption process. First, the FAA “allows operations under these exemptions by people who hold a recreational or sport pilot certificate. Previously, Section 333 operators were required to have at least a private pilot certificate. The newly added certificates are easier to obtain, and therefore less costly, than a private pilot certificate.”

Equally important: “A third class medical certificate is no longer required.  Now, a Section 333 operator only needs a valid driver’s license to satisfy the medical requirement.  This change is consistent with the agency’s approach for sport pilot certificate holders, who may fly light sport aircraft with a driver’s license and no FAA medical certificate.”

With the commercial drone industry in its infancy, pilots should not quit their day jobs to operate drones, said Donohue, but it is a viable part-time occupation. Getting involved at this stage of the industry’s development give them a head start on the three keys to success in any career: knowledge and skills, networking, and experience. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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10 Responses to “Commercial Drones Facing Pilot Shortage”

  1. david stevenson Says:

    What rates of pay are now applied to drone pilots?

  2. Joel Says:

    How does one find out about companies that want or need to hire commercial drone pilots? I am a private pilot. Thanks for your help!

  3. Scott Spangler Says:

    Vortex President Vince Donohue didn’t give any payment figures. Since he’s more connected to the industry than I am, I’d contact him (through the link to the Vortex UAS website in the story) about ways to connect with Section 333 exemption holders seeking pilots.

  4. Vince Donohue Says:

    Thanks for the great article Scott. Any questions for me on the topic or future training events (July 11th, 2015) can be submitted to

  5. Vince Donohue Says:

    David, the market has yet to develop fully so no one can really say with any certainty. Vortex UAS will be working with 333 exemption holders in finding those pay levels.
    Joel, we believe the easiest way for 333 holders to find pilots will be through training companies like Vortex UAS. We at Vortex are already working with companies who will need help with identifying and training UAS pilots. Start your training now so you’ll be in front of the pack.

  6. Robert Paul Anderson Says:

    I am a retired ATP pilot at 63 years and also have 45 years of Radio control skills. I have flown the less complicated quad copters also.

    Is there a chance for a position in the Tampa, FL area?


  7. JCARLOS Says:

    HI ALL ! I do not consider legally the provisions of FAA to have a pilots license to fly a drone !! The visual periphery and appreciation of distances and terrain is not the same as been in the cockpit!Been so much of a difference ; can not b e a reason legally for the FAA to consider a rules infringement of any mistakes by the pilot in command !! Most of the rules are old in some cases and to be a licensed drone pilot must be certified with a certain time in the simulator or a real drone and scenery measured in altitude and distances !! SOMETHING TO CONSIDER WHY THE WAY NOW FAA HAS A VAGUE IDEA OF THE RULES !! AIR SPACE / ALTITUDE YES ARE REGULATED , BUT THEN ? IF A MALFUNCTION OCCURS , OR THE CAMERA IS FOGGY , OR THE CONTROLS FAIL BECAUSE AN INTERFERENCE ? EVEN MEASUREMENT IS NOT ACCURATE !! STILL THE DRONE IS IN THE AIR AND THE MALFUNCTION OCCURS OR THE DRONE CAN BE OUT OF CONTROL !! WILL THE FAA STILL SANCTION THE COMPANY AND PILOT IN COMMAND ?

  8. Bob Gonsalves Says:

    We are seeking certified pilots that want to work with small UAV videography companies. Please email

    Bob Gonsalves
    U.S. Association of Unmanned Aerial Videographers

  9. Vince Donohue Says:

    Hi Robert,

    This is an exciting time for those involved in the Unmanned Industry as we see the tremendous potential for exponential growth over the coming years.

    Now that the FAA is allowing commercial operation of UAVs by way of Section 333 exemptions, commercial operators are looking to fill pilot positions. The goal of Vortex UAS is to train pilots to the highest standards and to provide commercial operators with pilots trained to the highest level of proficiency.

    Vortex UAS is working with 333 exemption holders who will soon be looking for pilots to man their growing UAS operations. Where will they turn for well trained and experienced pilots to fill their ranks of UAS operators? They will turn to those companies with the best training, like Vortex UAS.

    Vortex UAS is currently offering a 4-hour Introductory Course and an all-day UAS Flight Training Course. We encourage you to take advantage of these training opportunities by visiting our website and registering for training. You can find more details and registration links at:

    Vortex UAS is also looking to develop a webinar for those who are unable to attend the Chicago area training events in person. If youre interested in taking advantage of a webinar, let me know and well contact you when that opportunity becomes available.

    The Unmanned Revolution is coming. Those who understand and are prepared will find opportunities unfolding before them.

    Lets FLY!

    Vince Donohue
    Vortex UAS LLC
    Founding Team Member and Secretary
    AUVSI Heartland Chapter

  10. Roger @ Says:

    @David, I’ll be interested in that too.

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