As reported recently here on Petapixel, the FAA has rolled out a new testing program for recreational UAV (a.k.a., drone) users, created to “provide education and testing for recreational flyers on important safety and regulatory information.” As with many government-mandated programs, it provides neither education nor safety.
Having just received a DJI Mavic Air 2S for testing, I decided to take the FAA’s TRUST exam, partially to be compliant with the current regulations, but mostly to confirm my suspicions that this was another piece of bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. In that regard, I was not disappointed.
TRUST stands for The Recreational UAV Safety Test — that’s clever, FAA — and the “test” is available through several online providers and is free. TRUST was developed as a collaboration between the UAV industry and the FAA and appears to be a compromise agreed upon to get the FAA off the backs of the manufacturers.
The TRUST questions read like the Quick Start guide on a drone, and in fact, I’ve seen drone “getting-started” videos that provide more information.
It is impossible to fail the TRUST test, which makes it less of a test and more of a very dull video game. Get a question wrong in a section, and you repeat that section’s test questions. You can take the 23-question exam without much prior knowledge, although the exam also provides all the information needed to get the questions right should you find yourself taking the test with no common sense.
During the process, you can learn fun facts like “dehydration can affect [your] flying abilities” and that one may not fly a drone over the White House.
I’m not trying to say that a recreational drone pilot shouldn’t be versed in UAV safety, but more that there seems to be no point to this test. You’ll learn that you can’t fly above 400 feet without FAA permission, that you can use the FAA apps to find out if your airspace is controlled or uncontrolled, and that you must be able to keep the drone in your line of sight. The main problem I have is that the people who need this information the most simply aren’t going to know about or take this test, and they’re even less likely to follow the safety protocols even if they knew them.
The second issue I have is that the questions are so elementary. If you answer “no” to the question asking if “checking your drone before and after each flight is a good idea because it is a time when damage can be identified,” you not only shouldn’t be flying a drone, you probably shouldn’t even be using the internet.
Finally, the TRUST program seems pointless from an enforcement and functionality standpoint. Will local police know that there’s an FAA certification program for recreational UAV users? Will they know that the PDF I have saved with my 15-digit “token” is a valid FAA-registered number? Will they be able to look it up and see that I passed?
What difference will it make if I have a TRUST certificate anyhow? If I’m operating my drone safely and according to FAA guidelines, then there’s no reason for any agency to stop me and ask for my TRUST number. If I’m operating in an unsafe manner, I am already breaking the law, and whether or not I have passed the TRUST exam, therefore, does not matter.
All TRUST does is provide another reason for authorities to hassle the recreational drone user and ask for documentation. It feels draconian in the same way that tripod permits feel like an overstep.
The reputable drone manufacturers include this same info in their “getting started” guides and most drone apps won’t let you take off until you’ve acknowledged reading the safety information. Education is essential, especially when it comes to operating a flying chunk of machinery that can travel as fast as a car and has spinning blades on all sides.
If there is such a need for improved recreational safety that the TRUST program should exist, then it’s not enough of a solution to create that enhanced safety. If one can pass the TRUST exam simply by guessing the answers, then it’s not worth the digital paper it’s written on.
That said, as taking and passing the TRUST exam is now the law, please do so, and please bring the documented proof of passing with you — the last thing drone users need are regular instances of pilots getting arrested because they didn’t have the proper paperwork.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
About the author: David Schloss is a long-time photographer writer, reviewer, and editor. The former Editor-in-Chief of Digital Photo Pro and HDVideo Pro magazines, Schloss now is VP at PixelShift, a press consultancy company with clients in the photography and tech spaces.