Authoring Your Drone Program: Choose Wisely

Authoring Your Drone Program

BY JOSHUA LARSON

In “Drones and the Fire Service” (Fire Engineering, October 2016), I reviewed the process for obtaining a blanket area certificate of authorization (COA) for public aircraft operations (PAO). Since then, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation 14 CFR Part 107 has gone into effect; it is mainly geared toward commercial drone operations for hire or compensation. This regulation has established the following:

  • Drones must weigh less than 55 pounds.
  • They must operate within visual line of sight.
  • They may not operate over any persons not participating in the operation.
  • They may only operate in daylight.
  • No visual observer is required.
  • They may operate at a maximum ground speed of 100 miles per hour and at a maximum altitude of 400 feet.
  • The minimum visibility must be three statute miles.
  • They can operate in Class G airspace without air traffic control (ATC) permission. Operations within Class B, C, D, and E airspaces are allowed with prior notice.
  • No more than one drone can be operated at one time.
  • They may not operate from a moving aircraft or vehicle.
  • They may not carry hazardous materials.
  • The remote pilot in command (RPIC) must perform preflight inspection.

In light of this, fire departments can choose to either operate under the small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) rule (Part 107), which includes all the 14 CFR Part 107 provisions and those concerning aircraft maintenance and pilot requirements or obtain a blanket area COA, a waiver that permits nationwide flights in Class G airspace at or below 400 feet, the self-certification of UAS pilots, and the ability to obtain emergency COAs (e-COAs) under certain circumstances.

Blanket Area COA

Benefits. After researching both options, I recommend that fire departments develop their concept of operations and decide which path would be most appropriate for their level of operations and for the airspace they’ll be flying in. Each option has its benefits and pitfalls. I will discuss them and how the Middleton (WI) Fire District (MIFD) UAS program is structured. Below is a summary of the blanket area COA and how it benefits fire departments:

  • Your department/agency can self-train and certify its operators, observers, and maintenance personnel, so your drone operators do not need to become certified as remote pilots. Your department can create its own training curriculum as long as it complies with the regulations applicable to all aircraft operating in the national airspace system and ensures your drone operators fly in a safe and proficient manner. At a minimum, all your department’s drone operators and observers must know the following regulations:
    • 14 CFR Section 91.111, Operating Near Other Aircraft.
    • 14 CFR Section 91.113, Right-of-Way Rules: Except Water Operations.
    • 14 CFR Section 91.115, Right-of-Way Rules: Water Operations.
    • 14 CFR Section 91.119, Minimum Safe Altitudes: General.
    • 14 CFR Section 91.155, Basic VFR Weather Minimums.

However, it is very important that your department’s drone operator training curriculum follows the knowledge requirements for remote pilots. You can find an outline of the Remote Pilot Airman Certification Standards on the FAA’s Web site (https://www.faa.gov/training_testing/testing/acs/media/uas_acs.pdf); search for form FAA-S-ACS-10.

  • Your department/agency can apply for an e-COA, which allows you to get access into a particular airspace for an emergency situation. These are airspaces other than the Class G airspace that you are allowed in with your blanket area COA. If needed, you can request a temporary flight restriction through this process, which would allow you to operate only within that airspace. An FAA representative is always on call for an e-COA request; the approval process usually takes between 30 and 60 minutes.
  • The FAA has limited oversight on PAOs; thus, public safety agencies can develop their own policies and procedures, maintenance requirements, and training curriculum. This ensures that you can tailor your department’s concept of operations to your specific operational needs.

Pitfalls. Your agency must file a Notice-to-Airman (NOTAM) and contact the nearest airport to communicate your intentions prior to any launch. This communication ensures safe operations with unmanned and manned aircraft operating within the same airspace; however, it can become time consuming. Monthly reports are required detailing hours of operations for the month, any issues with the aircraft (e.g., loss link, flyaways), and whether you deviated from ATC guidance.

The pitfalls of the blanket area COA for public safety agencies may make it harder for a department to use this option. Fire departments may not have the knowledge or ability to put their operators through an in-house training program and may have to use third-party training, which has the potential to become a cost burden. The requirements to file a NOTAM or contact the nearest airport and obtain an e-COA (for certain circumstances) can make it difficult to rapidly deploy a drone when life safety may be at risk. If the blanket area COA does seem like it is too much of a hindrance, then Part 107 may be a better option for you.

14 CFR Part 107

Benefits. 14 CFR Part 107 is the FAA standard that establishes regulations for commercial drone operators. However, public safety agencies are able to select this option. The ability to choose between these two options gives fire departments more freedom over how to construct their drone programs. Below are some ways in which Part 107 can benefit fire departments:

  • The fire department can apply for a four-year waiver. The regulations for which you are able to request a waiver are the following:
    • 107.25, Operations from a moving vehicle or aircraft.
    • 107.29, Daylight operations.
    • 107.31, Visual line of sight aircraft operations.
    • 107.33, Visual observer.
    • 107.35, Operation of multiple UASs.
    • 107.37(a), Yielding the right of way.
    • 107.39, Operation over people.
    • 107.41, Operation in certain airspaces (B, C, D, and E).
    • 107.51(a), Operating limitations: ground speed.
    • 107.51(b), Operating limitations: altitude.
    • 107.51(c), Operating limitations: minimum visibility.
    • 107.51(d), Operating limitations: minimum distance from clouds.
  • The RPIC can delegate manipulation of the aircraft to another person, as long as the RPIC is close enough to take over the operation if need be. The RPIC is ultimately responsible for the flight.
  • There is no requirement for monthly reporting or NOTAM filing, which means less paperwork and more time flying the aircraft.

Pitfalls. It costs $150 per individual per test to take the knowledge exam to become a certified remote pilot. This cost may be a burden for your department, depending on how many operators your department has and its budget, especially in volunteer departments. The $150 does not include the training and materials that will most likely be needed to pass the exam.

The FAA does not require a ground school for remote pilots; however, I strongly recommend taking one to ensure that you are knowledgeable enough to take the exam and to fly safely within the same airspace as manned aircraft.

Another pitfall of Part 107 is that you cannot obtain an e-COA. However, with Part 107, you are able to request a four-year waiver for the 12 regulations outlined above. Currently, this waiver is good only for a certain airspace. If you have a large geographical area with many airspaces, your department may have to apply for multiple Part 107 waivers.

With the above outline of public safety COA and Part 107 operations, you still may be uncertain as to which route to take. The MIFD has developed a safe, successful, strong, and sustainable drone program that has aspects of both in its operations.

The MIFD Program

The MIFD has been developing our drone program for the past two years. We began using drones during our prescribed prairie burns to get a better visual on the progress of the fire. However, about a week after obtaining our first aircraft, we got a call to help the local police department search for an alleged robber. MIFD Chief Aaron Harris deployed the drone and, within 10 minutes, found the suspect in the cattails of a nearby pond. This deployment changed the way that the MIFD began to use drones. As this news started to hit nationally and internationally, other agencies in the state requested our drone to help with other public safety calls.

During the time of this rapid deployment of our drone program, Harris asked me to step in and help coordinate it because of my background as a private pilot in aviation. The initial steps in getting this program running involved researching the regulations that governed the use of drones. Early research indicated that we could not operate our drones as hobbyists and had to obtain a COA because of our public aircraft status. I started that process and soon learned that each person flying the drone had to have a private pilot’s license with a minimum of a third-class medical. Because of the tight restrictions at that time, we decided to hold off on our program and wait until the regulations became less restrictive.

About a year later, the FAA released a regulation that stated that it had limited oversight over PAOs, which allowed public safety agencies to self-certify their operators. After hearing that, I obtained a COA for the MIFD and am training our operators under the COA. We decided to go with the COA because we were able to self-certify our operators, and if we had a request to fly the drone during that time, we could request an e-COA to fly our mission.

We are now starting to train our operators. While developing the curriculum for the training, I decided that it would be best to base it on Part 107. First, we would like a select number of our operators to obtain a Part 107 remote pilot certification. Second, if we collect evidence while operating the drone, our training won’t potentially be called into question in court. Under Part 107, we can have manipulators who will know how to fly the drone if they are called to do so in an emergency, but they will always be under the direct supervision of a certified remote pilot.

Finally, we will be training everyone on our department to be visual observers. This is easily covered in a couple of hours or during a company drill. Once we have everyone trained and certified to an acceptable and safe level, we will apply for Part 107 waivers. Although we will have to apply for multiple waivers, we believe this would be the easiest way to fly within the national airspace safely and efficiently with manned aircraft.

Recently, the FAA has also announced an addition to the Part 107 regulations for public safety operators and commercial drone operators flying for a public safety agency. Individuals licensed as remote pilots under Part 107 will be able to apply for a special government interest (SGI) authorization. This authorization is similar to an e-COA. During public safety missions in airspaces other than Class G and not authorized by a Part 107 waiver, Part 107 operators can apply for an SGI authorization and get permission into that airspace. However, this authorization still takes approximately 30 to 60 minutes to get. This may not be the best option to rely on for public safety operations; however, it may be easier to get authorization from ATC because it does not have to amend a current COA.

To summarize, we obtained a blanket area COA to start training and still have the ability to respond to emergencies with the drone, if need be, outside of Class G airspace. Once all of our pilots, operators, and observers are trained and certified, we will apply for Part 107 waivers because of the simplicity of the process.

JOSHUA LARSON is a firefighter with the Middleton (WI) Fire Department and the founder of Breakover Services, a consulting firm for commercial and public safety sector drone operators.

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