I'm wondering if there is any formal/official definition* pertaining to the title given to people controlling Unmanned Aerial Vehicles? Are they "more" correctly titled Operators or Pilots?

*As set by ICAO, EASA or FAA for instance.


The Guardian: "Life as a drone operator"
Air Force Times: "Enlisted drone pilots? Decision expected early next year"

I've had a look through EASA Directive 2009/48/EC where it states:

Operator shall mean any legal or natural person, operating or proposing to operate one or more aircraft;

That does not provide a distinction between the entity organizing (e.g. airline) and the actual person doing the flying. A commercial pilot will not title himself an "aircraft operator" but will call themselves a pilot. This is less well defined with UAVs.

  • $\begingroup$ To add to any confusion the term "operator" has a specific meaning in aviation as described in this question $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ “Should” calls for opinion. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ @CGCampbell, I hear what you are saying, but what official agency should be considered the source of truth for a non-opinion based answer? To paraphrase the question: Official agency "A" calls them pilots, Official agency "B" calls them operators, what do you think they should be called? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 18:25

2 Answers 2


The oxford dictionary defines pilot as:

A person who operates the flying controls of an aircraft

So, technically, the drone operator should be called a pilot.

FAA National Policy Order 8130.34C Airworthiness Certification of Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Optionally Piloted Aircraft Section 6 specifically calls the person operating the UAS (only if it has been issued with an airworthiness certificate ) Pilot.:

  1. UA Pilots and Observers.

a. PIC Roles and Responsibilities.

(1) The PIC must perform crew duties for only one UA at a time.

(2) All UA flight operations must have a designated PIC. The PIC has responsibility over each flight conducted and is accountable for the UA flight operation.

(3) The PIC is responsible for the safety of the UA as well as persons and property along the UA flight path. This includes, but is not limited to, collision avoidance and the safety of persons and property in the air and on the ground.

(4) The PIC must avoid densely populated areas and congested airways in accordance with § 91.319.

The order requires the PIC to have a minimum of FAA PPL:

b. UA PIC Certification and Ratings Requirements.

(1) The PIC must hold and be in possession of, at a minimum, an FAA private pilot certificate, with either an airplane, rotorcraft, or powered-lift category; with single- or multiengine class ratings, appropriate to the type of UA being operated.

(2) The PIC must have and be in possession of a valid second-class (or higher) airman medical certificate issued under 14 CFR part 67, Medical Standards and Certification.

UK CAA also talks about 'Pilot Qualifications required to operate Unmanned Aircraft'. ICAO also uses the term 'pilot' for people controlling an UAV.

Both USAF and RAF call the UAV operators pilots- RAF calls them Remotely Piloted Aircraft System Pilots and USAF, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Pilots and they do get the 'wings'

RPA wings

"United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Operator Badge" by SSgt Austin May of the USAF - http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123170151http://www.mildenhall.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123170577. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

However, there has been no UAV pilot license issued as far as I know. The FAA issues a Remote Pilot Certificate, which is required for all non-recreational UAS flights. For exempt recreational flights, a remote pilot certificate is not required; instead, it is necessary to have passed "The Recreational UAS Safety Test" (TRUST). An RPC holder is a certificated pilot; someone who has only passed TRUST is not a certificated pilot, but may still be called a "pilot" as they are "operat[ing] the flying controls of an aircraft."

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah -- they're treating UAVs/RPVs as unmanned/remotely-piloted forms of existing categories/classes, instead of as a new category/class. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ Just to add to the confusion, Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority use the term "UAV Controller". $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 7:26

In Australia.."controller" is a term which has been used (interchangeable with "pilot".)

The operator of an aircraft is the corporate body responsible for its "operation"..


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