The TSA Background Check for Part 107 Drone Pilots
People in the United States who are interested in flying drones commercially, but who have had brushes with the law, often wonder whether a felony arrest or criminal conviction in their past will prevent them from getting a Part 107 Remote Pilot certificate.
The reason these folks are concerned is that in the United States, people seeking airman certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have to undergo an additional Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) security screening.
The purpose of TSA's vetting process is to identify and disqualify airman certificate applicants who pose security risks. They check whether the applicant is on any terrorism watch lists, and also run a background check for disqualifying criminal convictions. The TSA screening requirement applies to individuals applying for Part 107 drone pilot licenses just as it does to other FAA airman certificate seekers.
Wondering whether the TSA will approve their pilot certificate applications can be a prolonged source of anxiety for aspiring drone pilots who have criminal records because the TSA screening and background check are performed only after the person has satisfied all of the FAA's requirements. That means that there's no way for these folks to know for sure whether TSA will approve their applications until after they've put in all the work to pass the knowledge test and have applied for their certificates.
There are, however, ways to estimate the odds of TSA signing off on your application before you spend any money on Part 107 training or buying a professional-quality drone and accessories. This page is an attempt to break down the TSA's vetting process to make it easier for people with less-than-perfect backgrounds to make an educated guess whether TSA will have any problems with their applications for a Part 107 drone pilot license.
Can a Felon Get a Commercial Drone Pilot License?
In many cases, yes: but it depends on the crime(s), how long ago the applicant was convicted or released from prison, and how extensive the applicant's criminal record was. Here's how the process works and what TSA looks for when vetting an applicant for a pilot certificate.
The Aviation Transportation Security Act (49 U.S.C. § 114) requires the TSA to conduct security threat assessments on individuals who hold or apply for FAA airman certificates. This includes candidates for Remote Pilot certificates with sUAS ratings.
Once you pass your knowledge test and submit your application, FAA will forward it to TSA for the Security Threat Assessment. This is an automatic process and usually doesn't require any additional action on the applicant's part.
The TSA will then assess whether they believe the applicant poses a "threat to transportation or national security, a risk of air piracy or terrorism, a threat to airline or passenger safety, or threat to civil aviation security." They aren't very chatty about how they go about doing that, but we do know that TSA checks whether an applicant has a domestic or foreign criminal record, and whether they're on terror watch lists or no-fly lists.
If the TSA informs the FAA that they have no issues with the applicant, then the FAA will issue the certificate. If the TSA tells the FAA that an applicant poses a security risk, on the other hand, then the FAA is required under 49 U.S.C Code § 46111 to deny the certificate application.
The TSA vetting process can take anywhere from a few days to several months. A week to ten days is about average.
There are some instances in which you can be pretty confident that your application for a drone pilot license will be approved by TSA. For example:
- If you already hold a Part 61 pilot certificate, then your Remote Pilot application won't even go to TSA. The FAA will simply issue your new certificate because you've already been vetted for your existing pilot license.
- If you hold an FAA certificate other than a pilot certificate (mechanic, dispatcher, ATC, etc.), then your application will go to TSA, but should be rubber-stamped because you've already been vetted for your existing airman certificate.
- If you hold any of the following credentials, then your application will go to TSA, but most likely will be approved because the criteria are nearly identical:
- A TWIC card
- A SIDA pass for the secure areas of an airport
- A CDL with a HazMat endorsement
- A TSA PreCheck®, Global Entry, or NEXUS membership
The TSA's posted requirements for any of the above credentials are either identical to or similar enough to those for a Part 107 license that the chances of being approved for one, but not the other are pretty low. So if you already hold any of the above credentials, you can relax a bit. Your drone pilot license application most likely will go through with no problems because you've already been vetted for your existing credential.
If you don't possess any of the above credentials, then read on.
Disqualifying Criminal Offenses for a Remote Pilot Certificate
The TSA has a list of interim and permanent disqualifying offenses that it uses to rule out individuals who absolutely cannot hold an airman certificate.
Because the listed offenses are absolutely disqualifying, if you've been in trouble with the law, you need to check that list before investing any time or money working toward your Part 107.
Note that the list isn't all-inclusive: An extensive criminal record of crimes that are not on the list, or are lesser included offenses of crimes on the list, may also result in a finding of risk.
Guilty pleas to any of the offenses, no-contest pleas, or findings of not guilty by reason of insanity, are also disqualifying, as is being wanted or under indictment for any of the listed crimes.
Permanently Disqualifying Offenses
A conviction for any of the offenses listed in Part "A" of the linked TSA document will bar a person from ever holding a pilot certificate for the rest of their life. If you have been convicted of one of those offenses, then unfortunately, the chances of your Remote Pilot application being approved are basically zero unless you have been granted a pardon or had your conviction overturned or expunged.
Interim Disqualifying Offenses
A conviction for an offense in Part "B" of the linked document will bar a person from holding a pilot certificate for seven years after the date of conviction, or five years after release from prison, whichever is later. If you have been found guilty of one of those offenses, you should wait until the requisite time since your conviction or release from custody has passed before you apply. If you've had no other brushes with the law during that time, your chances of being approved are decent.
Other Possible Causes for Denial
TSA also may (not must) disqualify an applicant for other criminal activity not on the list, for example:
- An extensive record of minor criminal offenses.
- A history of violations of transportation-specific offenses or security regulations. Participating in a drunken brawl on an airliner, for example, would likely be frowned upon by TSA.
- Any period of incarceration of more than 365 consecutive days.
- Pretty much anything else that leads TSA to believe that you're a "threat to transportation or national security, a risk of air piracy or terrorism, a threat to airline or passenger safety, or threat to civil aviation security."
Finally, of course, if you're on any sort of terrorism watch list, your application will be denied.
Can You Request the TSA Background Check Before Applying for a Drone Pilot License?
Unfortunately, no. There is no way to be vetted by TSA in advance of applying for your pilot certificate. If you ask, they will say no. It would be nice to know in advance that the TSA will approve you before you invest any money in a drone, a Part 107 training course, or to take the examination. But alas, that's not how it works. TSA won't do the security screening until you've applied for the license.
Should a Felon Even Bother Applying for a Drone Pilot License?
The good news is that real-world experience suggests that TSA usually doesn't go out of their way to prevent people from earning their Remote Pilot certificates, nor even crewed aircraft pilot certificates.
Obviously, I can't speak for TSA; but I personally know people who committed very serious offenses and spent as long as a decade in prison, who nonetheless were able to obtain Part 107 or Part 61 pilot certificates. It seems to me that TSA puts a lot of faith in the "successful-life test," meaning that they assume that if a person has stayed out of trouble for a long enough time after being released from custody, they've probably rehabilitated themselves.
Again, that's just my opinion. I don't work for TSA and have no special insight into their policies. But I do know people with less-than-perfect backgrounds who have been approved to hold pilot certificates.
What it comes down to in the end is that it seems pretty unusual for applicants to be denied by TSA unless they fall under the TSA's list of disqualifying offenses. As long as you have no history of the offenses in Part A, and have satisfied the time requirements (at least seven years since conviction and at least five years since release from prison) for any convictions in Part B, the odds seem very good that your application will be approved.
Revised March 2, 2022.