How a 16 Year Old Went From Hobbyist to Commercial Drone Pilot

Drones Drones & Vehicles
How a 16 Year Old Went From Hobbyist to Commercial Drone Pilot

Editor’s Note: Mark Mathias, who organizes the Maker Faire Westport in Connecticut, shared with us the story of Ryan Felner, a sophomore in high school who figured out that if he wanted to start a drone business, he would need an FAA license to operate his drone. Here’s Ryan’s story, as told by his mother, Michele Felner.

Ryan has been interested in photography, video making, and editing for a while. Around 1-½ years ago, Ryan became very interested in getting a drone. He researched them for a long time, and we finally agreed to partially fund his DJI drone purchase last year in April.

Ryan figured out how to register the drone with the FAA as a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS). He was very careful to follow the rules for operating an unmanned aircraft: it must be registered; must not fly within a 5 mile radius of any airport; must fly under 400 feet, and the pilot must keep the drone in sight.

He started taking beautiful photos, and created gorgeous videos of houses, the beach, and all over the New England Coast during our family sailing trips. His photographs of our home, with Compo Beach and the Long Island Sound in the background, looked professional.

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Ryan came up with the idea to reach out to real estate brokers to see if he could take some shots for them. They were free at first, as he was an amateur. However, his pictures were so well done, he kept getting more and more phone calls with homes to photograph. He spent much of last summer taking pictures all over town.

The Norwalk Hour heard about Ryan and interviewed him for an article titled, “Student’s drone photography business takes off,” published on October 28 in the business section. We were thrilled and so proud, and we were getting phone calls from family and friends who saw it. It was so exciting.

Until later that night. Ryan went online to admire his article and was excited to see people had posted comments. But they were horrible! The story had been picked up by many different news and drone enthusiast sites. There were people from all over the country commenting on how what Ryan was doing was illegal, since the FAA had just recently implemented new UAS regulations a few weeks earlier.

They were pretty negative and mean, attacking both the journalist as well as his parents. However, a few other commenters wrote in support of Ryan. They pointed out how Ryan might not have known as so many people had not heard of the release of the new regulations at the time, and people should “give the kid a break.”

Ryan was horrified to learn that the FAA regulations, which were released on August 29, 2016, stated that to “Fly for Work,” you must have your Remote Pilot Certificate and, among other stipulations, be 16-years-old to apply for the license. Regulations now state that once you begin to fly a drone, you need to know why you will be flying. There are different, and very specific rules for whether you are flying for recreation (as a hobbyist) or commercial purposes.

The next day, things got even worse. Ryan came home from school to see an email from a safety representative for the FAA. It told him to contact them ASAP, or he could be subjected to big fines. Panic set in. He was so worried that we would have to pay an enormous fine.

We immediately wrote a reply and explained how devastated Ryan was about the article, specifically that he was not acting in compliance with the new FAA regulations. He said that he would cease all commercial operations immediately and that he would wait until he could take his pilot’s exam and apply for a proper license on his 16th birthday before he resumed any future business operations.

The reply from the FAA was fantastic. Mr. Aarons was so supportive and told Ryan that he completely understood how it happened, and that Ryan was doing exactly the right thing by not taking on any more jobs. Mr. Aarons then forwarded the emails to Marilyn Pearson, who is with the FAA UAS Policy and Implementation division. She has been working hard on educating drone enthusiasts and implementing the new rules.

She and Ryan emailed a few times, and she also commended Ryan on the way he was communicating with the FAA. Ryan reached out to both of them again with additional questions as his 16th birthday was approaching and he was getting ready to take the exam. Both of the FAA contacts offered to give him assistance if there was something he didn’t understand in his studies, as the Aeronautical charts section can be somewhat tricky for somebody who hasn’t seen them before. They were both so kind.

It was a long six months of waiting, but we are thrilled to report that after studying for the FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Knowledge Test all of Spring break, Ryan passed his exam. Ryan was then invited to exhibit his drone at Maker Faire Westport. After a conversation with Ryan on the phone, Mr. Mathias learned about Ryan’s experiences, and asked him if he would like to give a presentation at the Faire called “Adventures of a 16 Year old Drone Pilot.”

Marilyn Pearson, Aviation Safety Inspector from the FAA, in Hartford presented Ryan with his license at the Opening Ceremonies of Maker Faire Westport on Saturday, April 22. Photo by Dave Curtis

Ryan was so excited to take part in this fabulous event in town. We were so appreciative for this fabulous opportunity! When Ryan told Ms. Pearson (FAA) about his upcoming speech, she was so enthusiastic and happy for him, that she asked if she could come. Mr. Mathias came up with the idea for her to present Ryan with his Remote Pilot Airman Certificate during the Opening Ceremonies!


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Michele Felner

Michele Felner is from Westport, CT. She is a full-time mother of 3 kids, Lindsey, Ryan, and Samantha. In addition to being the (un-paid) driver for RAF-AIR, Ryan’s drone photography business, she enjoys many hobbies like cooking, sailing, and interior design. Michele graduated from Cornell University where she studied Urban and Regional Studies.

View more articles by Michele Felner


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