This interview is part of a larger piece developed by expert Joe Tally and published on Firecam’s website – visit Firecam for more information on drone programs and equipment for emergency services departments, and see this earlier article with DRONELIFE for tips on getting started.
Police and fire departments are adopting drone technology quickly, as communities realize the life-saving benefits of drones in fire, search and rescue, and other emergency services. But developing a new public safety drone program can be challenging. Aside from making the right choice on drones and sensors, departments need to navigate airspace regulations that can seem complex. We asked the experts at Firecam, leading providers of drones, cameras, and sensors for public safety organizations to provide some guidance.
DL: What’s the first step in setting up a new drone program in a public safety organization?
Firecam: One of the first steps requires that the department obtain federal regulatory approval to fly the drone or UAS in the national airspace (NAS). Two different options include operating under part 107 remote piloted aircraft (RPA) certification and or under a certificate of authorization (COA). This decision can be confusing but is ultimately determined by a number of factors including type and location of your operations.
While both tools allow an agency to fly a drone, each allows the operator to fly under a different set of rules depending on the requirements of that specific flight.
DL: What’s the difference between Part 107 and COA in practical terms for emergency services departments?
Firecam: Part 107 certification is very straightforward. It allows an operator to fly a small UAS under 55 pounds in daylight up to 400 feet in unrestricted airspace, within the visual line of sight (VLOS) of a drone, and not over people. Part 107 certification is obtained by taking a 60 question multiple-choice test, within two hours, requiring 70% passage or 42 correct answers. While it may be the easier solution, 107 does not require flight training, so it’s important to remember that pilots will still need to train and develop client skills to a specific safety level. It cost about $150 to take the 107 test while it costs nothing to file a COA.
If pilots need to fly beyond certain 107 restrictions, they may apply for waivers to fly at night, to fly over people or to fly BVLOS. The FAA administrator will determine whether there is a genuine need, and whether it is safe to execute those operations as part of the application.
A jurisdictional COA is more flexible. It’s better for agencies intending to operate in more complex airspace (Class B,C,D or E) or who may need to fly more complicated missions. The public safety agency requests a jurisdictional COA by submitting an application outlining specific missions, operational areas, aircraft types, policies and procedures, training, maintenance, reporting and other standard operating procedures they will follow.
DL: How hard is it to get a jurisdictional COA for your department?
Firecam: It definitely requires considerable knowledge to develop and submit a detailed plan for FAA approval, and the review may take three months or longer to complete. Departments may want to get some support from a vendor or training partner to get that done. Once the FAA approves, the agency is then required to follow those rules approved in the COA.
DL: What kinds of rules are you talking about?
Firecam: The most important aspects of the COA process may be your agency’s required planning and monthly FAA reporting. It takes extra time and effort but also ensures the safety and discipline in training, flight, maintenance, and operations. This may serve as an additional sanity check that goes far beyond passing the written test required operate under 107, and these extra reporting requirements hopefully translate into more safe operations.
DL: Do you recommend one or the other for agencies who operate mostly in unrestricted airspace?
Firecam: We recommend seeking both certifications, and many agencies use both, operating under one set of rules or the other depending on the mission. For example, if most of your operations occur during the day, in unrestricted airspace, these missions all fall under Part 107 without having a waiver. That’s operations such as marijuana grow search, security sweep for US Secret Service, SWAT barricaded subject, security sweep and observation for highway patrol, missing persons, robbery, fleeing suspects search, local agencies demo and training, and public awareness. But any of these missions that require night flight can be flown under the jurisdictional COA. That also gives the department the ability to drop payload such as a radio, life jacket, bottled water or extra magazines from the drone.
DL: Where can departments find more help on getting started with a new program?
Firecam: Departments should definitely reach out to vendors and see if they can help provide training and guidance. It’s a new area for many departments, so getting some support from a vendor partner is a good idea.