The ABC's of Starting a Drone Program: The FAA Process

By now, you’ve heard about how drones are helping the fire service, and you may think you’re missing the boat, but in reality, only a few hundred departments have adopted this technology, out of the many thousands of public safety agencies in the US.

As someone who has spent the last three years educating people in the fire service about the benefits of drones, the shift from “this is a toy” to “I want to know more” to “I want to buy one” is happening before our very eyes, and the message is clear - this technology is here to stay.

So if you’re interested in developing a UAV program for you department, what do you need to know?

There are three major parts to developing a program: understanding the FAA process, selecting and purchasing the right equipment for the task, and training. Let’s cover each one of these in more depth.

The FAA Process
Understanding the FAA process from the very beginning is the best way to start your journey towards developing a UAV program. The rules can be complex and confusing, and if you begin by simply buying a drone and “figuring it out later,” your chances of success are much lower.

I’ve fielded a countless number of call from people who purchased a drone from Best Buy or Amazon, only to immediately crash it, and reinforce what their superiors have said all along - drones are toys, and toys have no place in the fire service.

So let’s dispel that myth permanently. Drones, when used in the context of public safety operations are NOT toys, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. They are unmanned aircraft, and they will be operating in real live national airspace.

From a legal perspective, there are three ways to operate a drone legally in the United States - as a hobbyist, as a commercial operator under Part 107 rules, and as a public agency under a Certificate of Authorization or COA.

As a public safety operator, you may be tempted to ignore the first route, but hobbyists should not be ignored.

You’ve no doubt heard concerns about hobbyist drone operators infringing on public safety firefighting operations in the past, and that is a real concern.

Hobbyists are not required to undertake any training, and are only subject to guidelines about where and when they should and shouldn’t fly. Because of some very complex FCC regulations, and liability issues, you as a public safety agency are prohibited from shooting down a rogue drone, but you are able to refer an unwanted drone operator to law enforcement for interfering with a public safety operation.

That said, hobbyists can be your friends, too. If you have a hobby drone operator in your jurisdiction, get to know that person. Explain to them the importance of what you are doing, and get them to understand that you don’t want to prevent them from flying all together (unless you do), but that you’d like them to check with you first before flying at a scene. They may even agree to let you watch their screen as they fly, which could help you both make tactical decisions on site, and help prove that a drone for your department could be valuable.

Part 107
Moving onto Part 107, these rules are designed to cover commercial operation of a drone. They require you to be a certified operator, operate in day time, within visual line of sight between drone and operator, under 400’ in altitude, and in uncontrolled airspace.

To become certified as a Part 107 operator, there is a 60 question written test, and a TSA background check. The certification is valid for 2 years, and you are required to re-take the exam to renew your certification.

Within the Part 107 guidelines, there is one small reference to public safety operations, which states that you may operate under Part 107 if you declare your operation civil in nature, and adhere to the Part 107 guidelines.

Arguments can be made that this is the preferable route for public agencies, but at Skyfire, we don’t recommend going this way for two major reasons.

First, as a Part 107 operator, the responsibility for the flight falls on you as the “remote pilot in command” and not on the department; so if something bad were to happen, you’d be the first one getting the phone call from the FAA.

The consideration is that Part 107 only allows for flight in uncontrolled airspace - otherwise known as “Class G.” If you live in a rural jurisdiction with no towered airports, it’s very likely that you’re within Class G airspace. But if you have more complex airspace, Part 107 will only allow you to fly in those areas with a waiver - which at the moment, can take 4 to 6 weeks to authorize. Obviously, this is not helpful in an emergency situation, and until this process speeds up, it’s our opinion that this is not a viable option for public safety agencies.

Certificate of Authorization (COA)

Finally, the Certificate of Authorization or COA method. The COA comes in two forms - the blanket COA and the jurisdictional COA.

The blanket COA looks a lot like Part 107 - daylight operations only, within visual line-of-sight, under 400’ in altitude and in Class G airspace. It’s portable for the entire country, as long as you’re in Class G airspace, and it is relatively quick to get a blanket COA.

The jurisdictional COA covers your entire jurisdiction - whatever the airspace - and nighttime flight, as well as any other special requests you include.

These can take several months to be approved, but when they are, they are valid for two years, and renewable for another two years before you have to reapply.

The COA route is definitely more work-intensive, even confusing at times, but it is the best way to cover your entire program for your distinct airspace. To apply for a COA, you are first required to submit a “public declaration letter,” which is a letter from your city, county or state attorney to the FAA certifying that you are a public agency. Once that letter is approved, you will be granted access to the COA site.

Since this process is somewhat complex, you may also want to enlist the help of an FAA consulting to help expedite your application. This can help take approval times down from 8-12 months to 3-6 months.

The next blog in this series will cover how to choose the best equipment for your department.