Drones are proving increasingly popular among public safety agencies. Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone estimates that more than 350 law enforcement agencies have already incorporated drones into their operations. This trend will undoubtedly continue, especially among small and mid-size departments who have been historically unable to afford fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft assets. Drone systems provide many of the same capabilities and benefits as a manned aircraft at a significantly reduced cost.
There are three main factors for departments considering adding drone assets to their inventory:
- What type of drone system is best for our department;
- Training needs for the drone operators once a system is acquired; and
- Which regulatory scheme should the department operate under, i.e., as a Civil Aircraft Operation or as a Public Aircraft Operation under a Certificate of Authorization issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Most departments devote too much time and effort to assessing their equipment and training needs for their department’s drone program. It is the third factor, the appropriate regulatory scheme, that flummoxes most departments. Many departments are unaware of the difference between the two authorities, especially the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Here at Planet Inhouse, we have even heard anecdotally of agencies that have decided to never use the drone system they purchased because of what they perceive as unnecessary burdens. Or, alternatively, other departments ignore Part 107 and operate their drone programs anyway. The purpose of this information paper is to flesh out the difference between the two programs so departments can make an informed decision about the way forward.
Civil Aircraft Operation
Departments may choose to operate their drone programs as a Civil Aircraft Operation under Part 107. A department operating as a Civil Aircraft Operation is, in the eyes of the FAA, no different than any commercial drone operator.
There are pros and cons to operating as a Civil Aircraft Operation. The biggest and most noticeable benefit is that there are fewer administrative requirements. Specifically, there is no requirement to establish Standard Operating Procedures, which includes procedures for launch and recovery, lost communication, emergencies, and training, among others.
A downside to operating as a Civil Aircraft Operation is that departments would have to apply for and obtain regulation waivers and airspace authorizations, just like other commercial drone operators, before conducting operations at night or in Class B, C, D or E airspace. For smaller, rural departments with no controlled airspace concerns, this may not be an issue. However, for larger, urban departments that would be need to operate in controlled airspace, operating as a Civil Aircraft Operation may be inadequate to meet the department’s needs.
Also, departments operating as civil aircraft operations are not permitted to self-certify the training of their operators. Consequently, each drone operator would need to pass the FAA Remote Pilot exam and become a certificated Remote Pilot in Command.
For additional information about operating as a Civil Aircraft Operation, please refer to the FAA’s website:
Public Aircraft Operation
Many departments seek to operate as a Public Aircraft Operation under an FAA-issued Certificate of Authorization (COA). As mentioned earlier, on the front-end, applying for the COA can be administratively burdensome and time-consuming (see Appendix A for details about the COA application process). Once the COA is obtained, however, there are numerous benefits. For example, departments operating under a COA may:
- Self-certify that all drone operators have received drone training. In other words, there is no requirement that a department’s drone operators pass the FAA Remote Pilot exam before being able to lawfully operate the department’s drones. Instead, a department can establish and maintain its own drone training program.
- Operate at night under a standing waiver of FAR 107.29, which prohibits drone flights during periods of darkness.
- Consistent with the terms of the specific COA, a department may be able to operate in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, or E) under a standing airspace authorization.
By far the largest hurdle to obtaining the COA is the application process, and the creation and adoption of related policies and procedures in support of the department’s drone program. The process can be time-consuming and require considerable effort preparing the SOP. However, once the COA is approved, there are considerable benefits, especially for those departments operating in large urban areas that are in or near Class B, C, D, or E airspace.
An excellent resource to consider referencing are the other departments that have already received an approved COA. The FAA maintains a publicly accessible page on its website that lists all the public agencies who have received COAs. This site also contains all the supporting documentation submitted by each agency with their COA application, i.e., launch and recovery, emergency procedures, etc. Refer to Freedom of Information Act Responses for details. Also consider contacting your counterparts in neighboring departments who have already worked through the COA process. They may be able to provide helpful tips and advice.
For additional information about the COA application process, please refer to FAA’s Certificates of Waivers or Authorizations.
Suggested Course of Action
Many departments standing up a drone program will do so first as a Civil Aircraft Operation. These departments typically acquire one or more drones and send their core cadre of drone operators to Part 107 ground school. The departments will also insist that they pass the FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Exam. The departments could then lawfully operate as a Civil Aircraft drone operator. At the same time the department is standing up their program they are assessing whether they should remain as a Civil Aircraft Operator, or apply for a Certificate of Authorization under the Public Aircraft Operator option.
Departments considering establishing a drone program are encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org with questions. We would be happy to answer questions and walk you through the process. Additionally, Planet Inhouse’s team could create a COA tailored to your department’s needs and requirements.