Hiring the Right Drone Pilot

Kenji Sugahara discusses the importance of hiring a qualified drone pilot.
| By Kenji Sugahara

Submitted by Kenji Sugahara - | Learn more about Kenji below the article.

With rapid innovation and adoption, drones are becoming a common sight in Oregon. They can be seen surveying farmers' fields, inspecting construction sites, and filming aerial footage for television spots and theatrical productions. In most cases, drone pilots follow the rules. However, some drone pilots fly commercially without understanding the law--or, worse, willingly violate the rules of the sky. What these pilots do not know or choose to ignore may end up costing them or their clients a tremendous amount of money in fines or lawsuits.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers drones "aircraft." To fly commercially, even over your own property, pilots need to have what is called a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate. Even if someone offers to fly "for free" in the hope that you might one day hire them, those flights are considered commercial. Not only can you get in trouble with the FAA, if there is an incident you may be personally on the hook if you or someone you hired flew without the right licenses. In fact, most insurance policies exclude coverage for drones and aircraft.

Obtaining a Part 107 commercial license requires pilots to pass a knowledge test and a background check by Homeland Security. Test takers are required to understand airspace classifications and restrictions, drone-specific regulations, weather, and a number of other topics. While one can self-study, there are many courses available and it is likely that local community colleges will begin offering training courses. Passing the knowledge test is an accomplishment, but becoming a proficient pilot often requires years of flying. If a person already hold a pilot's certificate, the process to receive a "UAS" endorsement is straightforward and details can be found on the FAA's website.

When hiring a commercial drone pilot, protect yourself from liability and ask to see a copy of his or her Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate. Ask for a certificate of insurance that specifically covers commercial use of unmanned aircraft. Do not accept Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) insurance as they only cover hobbyist flights and exclude commercial operations. Ensure that the insurance is for at least $1 million, preferably $2 million or more. Do not be afraid to ask to for an operations manual. Check and make sure that pilots are authorized to fly in your shooting locations especially near airports. For example, most of northeast Portland is in Class C airspace and most of Salem is in Class D airspace- and pilots need authorization directly from the FAA to fly in these areas. If you are requiring a flight at night, ask the pilot for a copy of their “daylight waiver” as commercial pilots may not fly at night without one.

Make sure your pilot has the right tools for your production. You probably don’t want a pilot to show up with a common consumer drone for a high-end shoot. Likewise, it may be overkill for a budget shoot to be flying an ARRI. For higher end shoots that require an ARRI or RED camera, many pilots use either a Freefly Systems Alta 8, DJI M600, or custom heavy lifters. These heavy lifters can also carry different sizes of cameras so you aren’t limited to just RED and ARRI. Also in this range is the Inspire 2 with X5S camera. With the right licenses, the Inspire 2 can shoot in 5.2K in CinemaDNG. For shoots that don’t require high end cameras, the DJI Phantom 4 and Inspire 1 with X5 are adequate. For shots in tight quarters you can consider units like the Mavic Pro.

As with any service, ask for references. Avoid the low-baller who may not have the experience that you need. If you envision complex maneuvers or difficult shots, a professional pilot may suggest a team. It may be more expensive but having a pilot and aerial DP may be appropriate for your production. Ask for demo media. Look for tilted horizons, jerky camera motions, fisheye distortion, or the classic shaky jello. These are all hallmarks of inexperience or a lack of attention to detail. Check for a professional website and social media presence. Most of all, look for pilots who are thoughtful, professional, and take pride in their work. Drones have the potential to provide many benefits to businesses but businesses should always look to abide by the rules to ensure that they don't get fined or get dragged into costly lawsuits.

About Kenji Sugahara

A 5-year veteran drone pilot with a passion for aerial cinematography and photography, Kenji Sugahara is the principal at Dronescape Consulting. An attorney, he is also one of the first Part 107 pilots in Oregon. He helps advise the Oregon Legislature on drone issues, is the Policy Director for the 25,000 member Drone User Group Network, and is an Oregon Tourism Commissioner. He was recently selected to serve on a Federal Aviation Administration Aviation Rulemaking Committee. An active member of the community, he serves as an advisor for a STEM initiative in Yamhill County, Oregon. In September of 2013, he was part of a team that was the first to fly a drone inside a state capitol building. His clients have included the Oregon Department of Transportation, Tillamook Coast, Microsoft, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and Motor Trend Magazine. He may be reached at

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