AUVSI Launches TOP Pilot Certification Program

Photo by Asoggetti via Unsplash.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has launched an initiative to improve drone safety, boost public trust and help professional pilots distinguish themselves by setting standards and protocols for operating unmanned aircraft and certifying pilots who adhere to those rules.

The Trusted Operator Program, or TOP, offers three levels of certification that a pilot can earn based on their experience and training.

Level 1 covers flights taking place under Part 107 rules. That is flights must occur during the day, be kept under 400 feet and within the pilot’s line of sight. An operator will have their Part 107 license plus additional training from a regularly updated TOP manual.

Level 2 reflects the skills needed for operations that require a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or are in environments near expensive infrastructure such as cell phone towers, power lines or wind turbines. This level includes a competency-based assessment of flight skills.

Level 3 certification means the pilot is able to operate in “safety critical” environments such as near chemical, oil, gas, nuclear or mining facilities. Under TOP the Level 3 flight requirements apply even if a pilot is flying offshore and no FAA waiver is needed. Operators seeking this certification undergo a flight skills assessment specific to the sector in whichthey are operating — reflecting, for example, the distinct requirements of the electrical industry — and must be able to demonstrate adherence to rigorous safety protocols appropriate to that sector.

AUVSI worked with more than 170 industry experts from 50+ different organizations during the development of the standards and protocols. Manuals and checklists based on the consensus rules are used by training organizations to bring pilots up to certification levels while other organizations do the actual certification. The materials will be updated every two years to reflect changes in best practices, AUVSI’s Tracy Lamb, vice president of regulatory and safety affairs, told Inside Unmanned Systems earlier this year.

TOP develops the manuals and checklists and training is done by organizations that AUVSI authorizes. This approach ensures that training is consistent from organization to organization. Certification bodies, also authorized by AUVSI, verify the operators are up to standard on their skills, knowledge and procedures. The entire process is audited and updated regularly, Lamb told Inside Unmanned Systems.

Lamb also said in an earlier interview that potential customers would be able to verify a pilot’s certification. This increases consumer confidence and enables pilots who adopt the TOP standards and put in the time to hone their skills to distinguish themselves in a crowded market.

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