I recently earned my Remote Pilot Certification, which allows me to fly a small UAS (drone) for paid photo and video work in the USA, under the FAA’s Part 107 rule. With no background in aviation, passing the test was no easy feat for me. If you’re considering taking the test yourself, read about my experiences to make sure you’re well prepared.
The test was much more difficult than I was expecting, and studying for it wasn’t easy either. With a whole range of topics covered across multiple documents, a ridiculous amount of acronyms, and military-grade (confusing) directions, I’m honestly surprised that I passed. I'm detailing my experience here so that it might be of some help to others who, like me, want to make some money with a drone, legally.
There are a lot a big words and lengthy phrases that will be continually thrown at you. The number of reference materials and how scattered they are is mind-numbing at times. Understand this going in, and consider making a list (or copying the one I provide below) and try to keep all of these terms straight if you can.
Dammit Jim, I'm a Filmmaker, Not a Top Gun Pilot!
With no experience flying actual planes and no prior aeronautical knowledge, I was about as green as grass. I’ve flown drones for miles and miles, but the experience that comes with using a DJI Inspire or Phantom did little to help me prepare for the test. Many of the questions on it cover concepts of aeronautical knowledge, and writing in "my Inspire figures that out so I don't have to" unfortunately wasn't one of my answer choices.
I’m a filmmaker and photographer like most of you reading this probably are, so my main goal with all of this is to take pretty aerial pictures for money. A few months back the FAA finally got their act together and made a simple process for folks like us to add aerial video and photo to our client services. I had been planning to take the test since then, and would encourage everyone to do the same, unless you are content just flying as a hobbyist. (If that’s the case, all you need to do is register your drone, no testing for you!) Passing the test gets you a Remote Pilot Certificate, which allows for flying drones commercially.
The Unmanned Aircraft General (UAG) Exam
If you don’t already hold a part 61 certificate then you’ll need to take the UAG Exam to ultimately get your Remote Pilot Certificate. The exam consists of 60 multiple-choice questions, pulled from a larger pool, so everyone’s test will be a little bit different. You get two hours, and a 70% score is needed to pass. The only reference material allowed is a provided booklet, the AA-CT-8080-2G, the Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement for Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, and Private Pilot (AKTS).
The cost of the test is $150, and depending on your location it might be a week or two to get scheduled in for a spot at a training facility. Call PSI (or whoever administers test scheduling in your region) and they will find the nearest testing centers and help you book your exam– don’t bother calling the facility itself, they will just refer you to the test administration companies.
Subjects I Was Tested On
There are two primary sources for understanding the topics (not any actual facts, just the subject matter) that the UAG Exam will cover:
Both documents overlap a bit with what they cover, including test taking tips, a list of reference materials, and information on the certification process. These documents are where you should start. In addition, the FAA webpage for Becoming A Pilot should be bookmarked and has most if not all of the links and references you'll need to get going.
Here is the list of documents that I used to study. I didn't study all of these cover to cover, but I'd recommend exploring each one to find specific elements that are referred to in both the ACS and the Knowledge Test Guide. I hope you’re sitting down, as there are over 1,500 pages of content between all of these.
- Part 107 Summary (3 pages)
- FAA-G-8082-22 (SUAS Study Guide, 87 pages) (Not to be confused with the Remote Pilot Knowledge Test Guide, these are two different documents.)
- FAA-CT-8080-2G (Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement for Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, and Private Pilot, or AKTS, 116 pages)
- AC-107 (Advisory Circular for Part 107, 53 pages)
- Aeronautical Information Manual (726 pages)
- Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (524 pages)
- 14 CFR Part 47 (Aircraft registration, 16 pages)
- 14 CFR Part 48 (Registration and marking for SUAS, 6 pages)
- 14 CFR Part 107 (Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, 13 pages)
There are other documents that both the ACS and Knowledge Test Guide reference, but I didn’t bother with them. Even with what I linked to above, I found some overlapping information in places, and there was so much to take in that I don’t think I could have tried to include anything else in my studies.
The FAA-CT-8080-2G (AKTS) is the same document I referenced earlier, the one that you get to use during the test. Most of the pages are reference images for exam questions (practice and real) but in the first few pages there is a legend for icons on sectional charts that is a must-study.
Studying for This Beast
Over about two weeks, I probably spent around 14-16 hours total studying for this, which admittedly wasn't very much. I downloaded all of the above PDF files and bookmarked the 14 CFR web pages for easy reference. I used an iPad with an app that let me highlight key concepts, but do whatever works best for you. It's been a while since I've taken classes so I'm a bit rusty when it comes to taking notes and learning like this.
I read everything in the FAA-G-8082-22 and AC-107, and skimmed for certain material in the other documents. In general I found it to be a bit difficult to find the exact information I was looking for, whether it was an explanation of an icon on a sectional chart, or a clear definition of something like density altitude. Using the 'Find' function when reading PDF files made it easier to find pages with content I was looking for.
Practice Questions and Courses
Once I felt that I had a basic understanding of the concepts that were noted, I attempted the practice questions and took a free online course. Here’s where you can find practice questions:
- Knowledge Test Sample Questions, 40 questions
- Remote Pilot Knowledge Test Guide, five questions (page 11, FAA-G-8082-20)
The questions here reflect what you will see on the final test. Same format, similar subject matter. For those curious, here’s a glimpse at what you’ll be up against:
- What is the CTAF frequency for MOT?
- What airport is located approximately 47 (degrees) 40 (minutes) N latitude and 101 (degrees) 26 (minutes) W longitude?
- You have been hired by a farmer to use your small UA to inspect his crops. The area that you are to survey is in the Devil`s Lake West MOA, east of area 2. How would you find out if the MOA is active?
- What airspace is located at 1500’ MSL 3NM east of MOT?
In addition to that, you'll need to be able to decipher weather reports in METAR and TAF formats. They look like this:
Besides taking the above noted practice exams I’d also suggest taking a free online course from the FAA Safety website, which focuses on just the Part 107 highlights. It takes a couple hours to read through, and comes with practice questions at the end for you to work on as well. It also gives you the option to take a practice quiz on the subject matter it didn’t cover (basically all of the hard stuff involving charts and weather) which I found to be very helpful in my efforts to study that material.
As I was taking my test, about half way through I was ready to throw in the towel. "This is so stupid, I just wasted $150! F- this, F- that." Hard questions involving identifying proper radio frequencies, airspace restrictions, and other markings on sectional charts came at me like a ton of bricks, full of every acronym known to mankind. I focused the majority of my studying on reading charts and weather, but nowhere near enough to feel terribly confident.
Thankfully there were also a number of questions that were common sense (based on the Part 107 content) like whether or not having a hangover impaired your ability to make decisions. Then came a couple of what I’d consider to be ‘dumb’ questions, like within how many days I was required to notify the FAA in the event of changing my primary mailing address. I’m sure that detail is written somewhere among the 1,500+ pages I looked through, but that’s not exactly something I felt was important enough to included on the test. Ugh!
Here's a rough breakdown of the amount of questions included for each topic.
I ended up passing with a 78%. I had a chance to review the questions I missed before leaving the testing center, and they were mostly questions based on using aeronautical charts. It doesn't tell you what the right answer was, it only displays the question you got wrong.
To Sum It All Up
Set aside (at the very least) a few weeks where you can read for a few hours a day. Make notes or highlight things that seem important. Take the practice quizzes and the online Part 107 course. Go back and study harder in the areas you understand the least. Schedule an exam. Give it your best shot.
If you’re anything like me, the Part 107 stuff about Crew Resource Management and Aeronautical Decision Making will be easy enough to comprehend as it’s mostly common sense, except for a few notable details on subjects like PIC and VO responsibilities. My suggestion would be to spend most of your time learning how to interpret aeronautical section charts and how weather affects performance.
Studying this content is not easy. If you find yourself struggling, there are a number of additional resources online you can find by doing some Google searching. There are even paid training courses you could take. The point is that if you want to grow your business into the aerial video or photo realm, then consider the time and money to be an investment into that and don't take your studying lightly.
Feel free to post your questions below! Has anyone else here taken the exam? Did you have a similar experience? Let me know in the comments.