Which Drone Operation Type is Right for Your Public-Safety Agency?
Wednesday, July 03, 2019 | Comments

Is your public-safety organization considering adopting a drone or unmanned aerial system (UAS) program?

One key factor an agency must consider is what type of permit is best to operate its program under, said Mike O’Shea, program manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) UAS Office, during a June 19 webinar hosted by the FAA. There are two main types of permits available to public-safety organizations, as well as a third option that can be used during emergency situations.

For regular operations, public-safety organizations can operate under the FAA’s Part 107 rules for commercial drone operations or operate as a public agency under a certificate of authorization (COA) under the FAA’s Part 91 rules, O’Shea said.

To operate as a public agency, the user must be part of a state government, political subdivision or another entity and have certification of such in writing. Additionally, the aircraft must be owned by or leased to the agency operating it under the COA, and any missions the agency flies under the COA must fulfill a government function.

For example, a fire department could use a drone to provide additional information at the scene of fire, but it couldn’t demonstrate that drone to school children under the COA because that wouldn’t be considered a government function, O’Shea said.

Public agency operators can fly in any Class G airspace and can apply for a jurisdictional COA to operate in other airspace classes.

Under the Part 107 rules, an agency can fly a drone weighing less than 55 pounds at 400 feet above ground or below. To fly under the commercial Part 107 rules, all pilots operating the aircraft must have a remote pilot certification from the FAA. Part 107 operations are prohibited from certain operations such as flying after dark, flying over people not involved in the drone operation and flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

Part 107 operators can request a waiver to some of these prohibitions, and the FAA is examining possible changes to its Part 107 regulations.

Determining the right drone operation type for your organization depends a lot on the goals of your drone program, O’Shea said.

Public agency operations have fewer initial restrictions than Part 107 operations. For example, the COA allows an agency to fly at night without seeking a waiver and allows limited operations over people not affiliated with the operation, O’Shea said. However, Part 107 operations offer greater flexibility to an agency because they do not carry the government function limitation and have fewer eligibility conditions.

Agencies can also choose to operate both as a public agency and under Part 107 operations, said Steven Pansky, a senior air traffic consultant supporting the FAA’s UAS Tactical Operations Section. “In fact, we often recommend that they hold both.”

When holding both certifications, an agency must choose which best fits the mission during which it plans to use the drone and declare that is the regulation it is operating under for that mission. An agency cannot mix and match the elements of the different permits in a single mission, Pansky said.

In the case of an emergency situation where an agency needs to fly beyond the normal limitations of Part 107 or public agency operations, an agency can apply for a temporary emergency approval. The FAA operates a 24-hour call center that an agency can contact to receive temporary approval to fly anywhere it needs to help respond to an emergency. Once the call center has received the agency’s request, it works with local airports and other stakeholders to coordinate the emergency operation and ensure there are no conflicts, Pansky said.

Find more information on the different type of operations and other resources on the FAA’s UAS page.

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