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Do You Have a Certification Verifying You Know How to Fly?

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

As most of you are aware, the FAA Part 107 Knowledge Exam is just that…a “knowledge exam.” It does not test or credential a pilot’s ability to operate an aircraft. Newly minted pilots can ace the exam and then fly right into a bus because they have no idea how to pilot a drone. Many experts in the field, including myself, feel that this is a significant hole in the industry and something the FAA needs to address. In the meantime, the Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA) has stepped up and offered the only nationally recognized UAS flight proficiency certification. This is a “must-have” for any commercial drone operator. Let’s dive in and talk through exactly what this is all about.


APSA (pronounced “app – sa”) is a non-profit association supporting safe and effective manned and unmanned aircraft operations. It was founded in 1968 and is a very familiar name for those in the public safety community. They are the only nationally recognized organization to offer a credential that certifies a pilot has a minimum competence to operate a multirotor UAS. To earn the credential, pilots must navigate a test lane and position their aircraft at specific locations in order to take pictures of specific targets. A pilot must be able to capture the image of 32 of the 40 targets (80%) within ten minutes. The exam is administered by an APSA-certified proctor who will upload the pilot's exam results to their server. The pilot will then pay a $75 certification fee directly to APSA to receive the credential.

The Exam

One of the nice things about the exam is that the federal government developed it. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (the same organization that gave us the atomic clock) developed the exam. The test lane is relatively easy to make using everyday materials. Essentially, the test lane consists of three “bucket stands.” The bucket stands have 2-gallon buckets at 45-degree angles on all four sides. There is also a bucket turned straight up. A target with a green ring along the outside perimeter is at the bottom of the buckets. Points are awarded if the drone can see the entire green ring. If the drone is out of position, the bucket wall will obstruct the view of the green ring. The bucket stands are arranged 10 feet apart, and the pilot must maintain an altitude of 10 feet. You have to appreciate the simple geometry that makes the exam work. The buckets are at 45 degrees, so if you are supposed to be 10 feet away and fly 10 feet high, you’ll be staring straight down the bucket throat if you’re in the correct position.

How is the Exam Given?

The exam is traditionally given in person. An APSA-certified proctor will call out instructions to the pilot, who will then navigate to a position and take a picture of the target. At the end of the exam, the proctor will review the images and verify that an unbroken green ring can be seen in 80% of the pictures. There are some barriers to the certification process, however. The test lane apparatuses will either need to be built or borrowed to conduct the exam. A test lane will cost several hundred dollars in material and a good part of a day to make. You need to find and hire an APSA proctor. Alternatively, you could have someone on your staff be certified as a proctor. To do that, you’ll need to travel to an APSA 3-day workshop for training. These are not insurmountable barriers, especially if you have a large program. There is another option, though, that is gaining a lot of attention…simulation!

APSA Certification on the Simulator

APSA, Clemson University, and Little Arms Studios have partnered to offer the APSA certification through our simulator. The simulator has the test lane, instructions, and scoring protocols built in. The simulator includes 14 of the most common drones, so you can pick one you are likely very familiar with. To maintain the integrity of the exam, the pilot will need to record themselves and their screen while they take the exam. An APSA proctor can then review the video and the simulator backend data to verify the fidelity of the results. Our simulator is the only one of its kind approved by APSA for virtual examination. The APSA credential is available in the Clemson Drone courses and is a true differentiator with our program.

Why This is a Must-Have

Having a credential that certifies your flight proficiency is a big deal in our industry. The APSA certificate is the only nationally recognized credential that tells clients, customers, and employers that you have a basic level of competence behind the sticks. From an employer's point of view, it’s an absolute must-have to manage liability. Imagine someone on your team crashes a drone and does significant damage (their fault or not). Now imagine your response when asked, “how do you know they had sufficient skills to operate the drone safely?” Being able to point to a well-respected organization’s certification and say, “they were a credential pilot and passed APSA’s flight proficiency exam” is worth its weight in gold. You pay hundreds of dollars for insurance. Paying an additional $75 for the certification and the corresponding liability protection seems like an easy call to me. This is why we include the APSA certification in all our courses that teach flight proficiency. Having a certificate that verifies flight skills is a critical need for our industry, and we are very proud to offer it at Clemson Drone.

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