How to Use Drones in Your Public Organization

BY Alan Perlman
15 November 2016

We’ve been getting a lot of questions about how public organizations like fire and police departments should think about integrating sUAS into their operations. And while public organizations have the opportunity to send their individual remote pilots through the Part 107 certification, they also have the opportunity to apply for what’s called a Public COA.

In this article, we’ve asked Ben Roper, IT Director for the City of College Station, Texas to provide some information for governmental entities considering UAS operations as Public Aircraft Operators. College Station recently established a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) program and Ben helped navigate the Public COA process, so he has a lot useful information to share.

 

FAA Public COA

Image source

Here is Ben’s full article:

Interest in using drones for a wide variety of tasks has skyrocketed (no pun intended) in the last couple of years. New uses are being developed on an almost daily basis. There is little argument that drones are truly a disruptive technology. While the focus and attention has been primarily on commercial uses, government entities are also moving quickly to embrace drone use for everything from increased situational awareness in public safety operations to inspections of utilities and infrastructure.

Government entities face many of the same challenges as the private sector including developing operations procedures, pilot in command training and learning to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS). However, government entities also face some additional challenges such public education, justification for using taxpayer resources, operational requirements that often dictate use at any hour of the day or night in response to public safety needs.

Recent Changes—the Small UAS Rule

faa-logoSince the new Small UAS Rule, “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems”, (Part 107) was released June 21, 2016 and became effective August 29, 2016, public entities have an additional option available to them with respect to drone use. Government entities may elect to operate as Civil Operators, following the Part 107 regulations, or as Public Aircraft Operations. Additionally, Part 107 allows government entities to operate as either Civil Operators or Public Aircraft Operations,

In short, a government entity may choose to conduct a public aircraft operation within the restrictions of the public aircraft statute (and certain civil regulations applicable to all aircraft operating in the NAS), or it may choose to conduct a civil operation and comply with the requirements of the applicable regulations in 14 CFR. (Part 107,III,C,3.)

This allowance to operate under either or both set of rules and regulations grants government entities with a great deal of flexibility.

Advantages of Going the COA Route

Potential advantages to choosing to operate as a Public Aircraft Operator include additional options to meet certification and training requirements. As stated in the explanation for Part 107 (see the explanation here, Part 107,III,C,3.) “In the NPRM, the FAA explained that this rulemaking would not apply to ‘public aircraft operations with small UAS that are not operated as civil aircraft.’ This is because public aircraft operations, such as those conducted by the Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and NOAA, are not required to comply with civil airworthiness or airman certification requirements to conduct operations.” Although Federal Agencies such as DoD and NASA are specifically mentioned, Public Aircraft Operations by State and Local government entities are allowed by Law. As a result, Public Aircraft Operators can “self-certify” airworthiness and pilot certification. In the COA granting authority to operate, the FAA does require the agency to explain their training and certification process.

Advisory Circular AC 00-1.1A “Public Aircraft Operations” provides information to assist in determining whether government or government-contracted aircraft operations conducted within the territory of the United States are public or civil aircraft operations under the statutory definition of “public aircraft.”

How the Rules Relate Specifically to Drones

Government entities electing to establish an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) (aka Drone) program need to acknowledge that they are establishing an aviation unit for their entity and be willing to devote the time and resources to operate safely and effectively. You cannot just buy a drone and start operating.

There has been a great deal written about the Part 107 requirements, but the requirements to operate using the Public Aircraft Operations may not be as well understood by government entities. Procedures are outlined in the next section.

So Where Do We Start?

Government entities should spend some time developing a concept of operations, even as a preliminary step. There is a good deal of information available to help with this initial step. Talking to other entities that have already taken this step will likely provide invaluable information and is highly recommended. Once the initial concept of operations is developed, you can research which drone(s) can best perform the functions identified in the concept of operations and are within the available budget.

At this point, most entities are ready to purchase their drone. Once purchased, the first step is to register the drone with the FAA. All drones weighing greater than 0.55 pounds must be registered, including drones that will be used in Public Aircraft Operations.

Developing a Drone Policy

If not already started, entities should start developing a policy for using the UAS/drone. Although there is no specific guidance for what information should be covered in the policy, many entities include the following information:

  • Concept of operations
  • Description of the aircraft system
  • Duties and Responsibilities
  • Maintenance and inspection
  • Operations requirements and restrictions
  • How images will be used
  • Emergency Operations
    • Loss of communications
    • Loss of control
    • Loss of GPS by aircraft
    • Aircraft crash
  • Launch and Recovery
  • Training and Qualifications
  • Approved Area of Operations

Authorization to Operate

Registration alone does not provide authorization to operate. Although as stated in Part 107 the rule does not apply to Public Aircraft Operations, the FAA does regulate the general operating rules that apply to all aircraft operations. As such, the public aircraft operators must apply for a Certificate of Wavier/Authorization (COA). The website to apply for the public aircraft operations COA is a FAA controlled access site. In order to gain access to the site, a public entity must submit a “declaration letter” from the Agencies City, County, or State Attorney’s office (Depending on the agency requesting the approval). The declaration letter should be submitted via physical mail to the Federal Aviation Administration, Air Traffic Manager, Unmanned Aircraft Tactical Operations (AJV-115), 490 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Suite 7105, Washington DC   220024.

Approval of, or requests for additional information, with regard to the declaration letter is normally received within 2-3 weeks. Once the FAA provides acceptance of the Declaration Letter, applicants need to email the FAA/UAS office at 9-AJR-36-UAS@faa.gov stating the intent to operate as a Public Aircraft Operator. The email should contain:

  • public agency requesting the COA
  • short description of the UAS, and
  • concept of operations

Once granted access to the website (https://ioeaaa.faa.gov/oeaaa/), the entity will be assigned an FAA point of contact and instructions for completing the COA application. Typically they will be asked to provide 1) the type of mission, 2) launch/recovery/operations location(s), 3) operational altitudes, 4) flight procedures, 5) communications, 6) emergency procedures such as lost communication and loss-of-control link, and 7) pilot in command (PIC), flight crew, and observer qualifications and training requirements.

The FAA generally follows a two phase process to grant full operational approval. The initial COA (Phase I) is generally restricted to training and evaluation activities at a specific training site that is confined to Class G airspace (exceptions may be made to the airspace requirement if safety of flight requirements are met), remaining well clear of housing areas, roads, any persons, and watercraft. This permits agencies to conduct necessary ground and flight training to bring pilots, observers and ground crew members to a high level of UAS flight proficiency.

Although there are no specific guidelines regarding the kind or type of flight proficiency/training proof the public entity needs to provide to the FAA in order to move to Phase II, the FAA does require that flight training be documented and copies supplied to the FAA. Additionally, they require that the agency document that the pilot in command is knowledgeable of how to operate safely in the NAS. There is no template provided by the FAA, the Agency has latitude in how this is achieved. For my agency, we are developing an in-house written examination that covers the information in FAA-G-8082-22 “Remote Pilot – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide

The COA process for both phases is very similar. The difference is in the information provided in the COA. Phase I is only granted in a limited area and under the conditions specified in the COA for training and familiarization operations. The time to complete Phase I and apply for Phase II is dependent on the Agency and the time and resources available to devote to the program.

Once the Proponent has completed sufficient flight and scenario training and feels confident that its flight crew members can safely operate the UAS at a level of competency to safely support actual missions, the Proponent will apply for their second “Operational” (Jurisdictional) COA (Phase II).

 

Alan Perlman

Founder & CEO

Alan is an FAA-certified drone pilot and founded UAV Coach in 2014 to help connect drone enthusiasts, to provide world-class sUAS industry training courses, and to help push the drone community forward with a focus on safety and commercial opportunities.

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