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UAS Regulatory/Ops

The basics on FAA regulatory and operational considerations

As an emergency responder, you’re familiar with complex standards, training requirements and the systems you use every day. The aviation realm is very similar except where the fire and emergency service accepts a certain amount of risk, the goal in aviation is as close to no risk as possible. This is a very different operating environment that requires some research and understanding before you proceed.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for processing and approving all requests for Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations in the National Airspace System (NAS). As a public entity, fire departments have two choices of how to operate their UAS:

Agencies may choose which process to follow but can’t mix and match them.

Certificate of Authorization (COA) Option

Authorization for public UAS operators is granted via the issuance of a Certificate of Waiver/Authorization (COA). Typically, public safety agency sUAS flight operations are considered public aircraft operations. The guidelines for operating as a public aircraft entity are described in the FAA Flight Standards Information Management System (FSIMS) 8900.1 Volume 16.

When the FAA receives an application for a COA through the FAA’s COA On-line process, they initiate a review and application assessment, including:

  1. 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
  7. Pilot in command (PIC), flight crew, and observer qualifications and training requirements

The typical COA application approval process is completed within 60 business days of receipt, provided there are no submittal errors, missing information, or safety or airspace issues.

Developing a UAS Program

UAS offers a cost-effective alternative to the traditional manned-aviation program for most public safety aviation missions where an airborne asset could be utilized. Despite their relatively easy purchase, it’s critical that your agency prepares for drone procurement by doing your homework and getting your community engaged. A successful outcome is more likely by developing a clear path to the implementation of your unmanned aircraft program.

1. Concept of Operation (ConOps)

The type of sUAS required depends upon an agency’s ConOps, which can describe a proposed system from the viewpoint of the mission and people who will use it. The ConOps expresses what the incident commander intends to accomplish and how it will be done using available resources. ConOps can be developed in different ways, but usually share the same properties.

In general, a ConOps includes:

  • Statement of the goals and objectives of the system
  • Strategies, tactics, policies, and constraints affecting the system
  • Organizations, activities, and interactions among participants and stakeholders
  • Clear statement of responsibilities and authorities delegated
  • Specific operational processes for fielding the system
  • Processes for initiating, developing, maintaining, and retiring the system

2. Assess Technology

Research the technologies available that meet your concept of operation:

  • Conduct web searches of the technologies available
  • Communicate with other agencies utilizing UASs
  • Contact manufactures that will meet your needs
  • Understand city, county, state and federal laws surrounding the utilization of UASs

3. Cost/Benefit Analysis

Your agency should determine if the benefits to the procurement of this technology makes fiscal sense in these economically challenging times. This analysis can range from extremely simple to an extensive, multi-volume document, but most assessments contain these major areas:

  • Analysis summary
  • Project overview and background
  • Discussion of alternatives
  • Alternatives - goals and concepts
  • Life-cycle costs and benefits
  • Risk analysis
  • Cost/benefit analysis
  • Project cost/benefit analysis
  • Review/approval signatures

4. Community Acceptance

The benefits of sUAS technology can quickly be over-shadowed by controversy surrounding its use if the community isn’t educated on the benefits and operational controls in place. Topics of discussion should include:

  • Legal guidelines for use of airborne technology
  • A community engagement plan
  • Compliance with city, county, state and federal policies, ordinances and laws

Access to COA Online

Before the FAA grants an agency access to the COA Online System to begin an application process, the agency (or proponent) will be asked to provide a declaration letter from their city, county or state attorney’s office (depending of the agency requesting the approval). This document assures the FAA that the proponent:

  • Is recognized as a political subdivision of the government of the State under Title 49 of the United Stated Code (USC) section (§) 40102(a)(41)(c) or (d)
  • Will operate its unmanned aircraft in accordance with 49 USC. § 40125(b) (not for commercial purposes)

An agency’s accountable executive cannot self-certify their agency is a "public" agency. The responsibility for establishing the legal nexus between the state and the agency rests with the city, county or state attorney general and their appropriate legal counsel.

Access to the COA Online website and the application program cannot be approved until this declaration letter has been validated by the FAA's Legal Office.

Preparing Documents for the Application

The COA online application process requires the proponent address several areas that will provide sufficient information for the FAA to make a determination as to the safety of the operations within the National Airspace System. These documents include:

1) An executive summary that will describe an overall program objective (ConOps) and an operational summary that addresses the flight mission description the proponent will be executing.

2) A system description (description of the UAS technology, the ground control station, data link communication and any FAA Technical Standard Order (TSO) components) including the UAS registration.

3) An airworthiness release (AWR) statement from the proponent’s accountable executive acknowledging that the proponent accepts all responsibility for ensuring that the UAS is airworthy and that it will be operated and maintained in strict compliance with the public agencies certification criteria.

4) A lost-link procedures document that describes the specific lost-link procedure that will be implemented in the event of a lost-link occurrence (loss of command and control (C2) link).

5) A lost communication procedures document that describes what action(s) the pilot-in-command (PIC) will take if there is loss of communication between PIC and air traffic control, or lost communication between PIC and the visual observer(s) (VO).

6) An emergency procedures document that explains the protocols/procedures that will be executed at the site in the event of an emergency (this could include execution of procedures outlined in the manufacturers supplied operator’s flight manual, other possible alternative courses of action available for each phase of flight, and any outside agencies or resources for medical and fire or other assistance) Basically, this is a "what will you do if something bad happens?" document.

7) Registration of the unmanned aircraft - Title 49 §§ 44101-44104 prohibits operation of unregistered aircraft and establishes the requirements for aircraft registration. Public aircraft are not exempted from the registration requirements. You will not be able to complete the COA online program until your unmanned aircraft is registered.

  • The regulations implementing registration requirements are in 14 CFR part 47 for all aircraft, or in 14 CFR Part 48 for small UAS.
  • Under § 47.3, aircraft owned by U.S. citizens, lawfully admitted permanent residents of the United States, and U.S. corporations are eligible for registration and operation.
  • Registration options:

Flight Aircrew Qualifications

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reviewed the Public Aircraft Operator criteria and clarified the exclusion of government entities conducting Public Aircraft Operations (PAO) for the purpose of fulfilling a government function that meets certain criteria specified under Title 49 United States Code, Section 40102(a)(41) & 40125(a)(2). PAOs are limited by the statute to certain government operations within U.S. airspace and must comply with general operating rules including those applicable to all aircraft in the National Airspace System (NAS). Under this clarification the government entities may exercise their own internal processes regarding aircraft certification, airworthiness, pilot, aircrew, and maintenance personnel certification and training.

The public agency will still be required to get approval from the FAA before operating UAS in the national airspace. However, the public aircraft operator should establish their own training and certification program for their pilots, observers and aircraft maintenance personnel. When establishing self-certification programs of this kind the government entity conducting the public aircraft operation is responsible for ensuring that the proposed operation can be safely conducted under the terms of their certificate of waiver (COA).

Public operators should review Advisory Circular 00-1.1A for information on how to establish internal policies, procedures, protocols and checklists to ensure safety of flight. Public entities may also review pertinent parts of Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) parts 61, 91, and 107, to familiarize themselves with areas that a certificated pilot be knowledgeable of and follow. The FAA does not prescribe the method that public entities use when developing processes and programs; it’s the responsibility of each public entity to determine these processes and programs.

What COA(s) Are Right for Your Agency

The Unmanned Aircraft Program for public safety was designed to give the proponent a more rapid process for approving UAS operations while expanding the access into the NAS. There are currently three different types of COAs to address the needs of the proponent:

1. Blanket Area Public Safety (BAPS) COA

This Blanket Area Public Safety COA approval will allow small UAS (55 pounds or less) operations during daytime Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) under the following limitations:

  1. At or below 400 feet AGL; and
  2. Will take place beyond the following distances from the airport reference point (ARP) of a public use airport, heliport, gliderport or water landing port listed in the Airport/Facility Directory, Alaska Supplement or Pacific Chart Supplement of the U.S. Government Flight Information Publications.
    • 5 nautical miles (NM) from an airport having an operational control tower; or
    • 3 NM from an airport having a published instrument flight procedure, but not having an operational control tower; or
    • 2 NM from an airport not having a published instrument flight procedure or an operational control tower; or
    • 2 NM from a heliport

Under this Blanket Area program, the public agency will conduct training at training locations that meet the provisions of the COA as addressed above that remain well clear of housing areas, roads, any persons and watercraft. This allows the agency the ability to:

  • Conduct the necessary ground and flight training to bring pilots, observers and ground crew members to a high level of UAS flight proficiency
  • Develop and conduct training exercises to ensure efficient, standardized coordination among other supporting / responding emergency elements (e.g. coordination for operational missions including search and rescue, disaster control, forensic photography, fire missions, law enforcement, etc.)

Once this training has been completed, the proponent will be authorized under the same COA to conduct UAS public safety missions in compliance with Title 49 USC 40125B at any location within the National Airspace System under the provisions stated within the COA. The FAA believes utilizing this COA will allow most public agencies the ability to meet 75% of their mission objectives.

2. Jurisdictional COA

Operations that cannot operate within the Blanket area COA criteria or wish to expand their access beyond the Blanket Area COA described above may apply for Jurisdictional COA. This expanded COA could include operations in Class D, E and C Airspace as well as operations conducted during the night.

When the Jurisdictional COA is issued the proponent need only file a Notice to Airman (NOTAM) prior to flight, which identifies a defined operating Area (Radial/DME off a known Navigational Aid) within the construct of the Jurisdictional COA Area and a notification to the appropriate air traffic control facility having jurisdictional responsibility over that airspace (if required).

Like the Blanket Area COA, the jurisdictional COA has a provision that requires the public agency to:

  • Conduct training at training locations that allows the agency the ability to conduct the necessary ground and flight training to bring pilots, observers and ground crew members to a high level of UAS flight proficiency
  • Develop and conduct training exercises to ensure efficient, standardized coordination among other supporting / responding emergency elements (e.g. coordination for operational missions including search and rescue, disaster control, forensic photography, fire missions, law enforcement, etc.)

Once this training has been completed, the proponent will be authorized under the same COA to conduct UAS public safety missions in compliance with Title 49 USC 40125B at any location within the National Airspace System under the provisions stated within the COA.

3. Emergency COA

If the proposed operating area is not covered under the public safety agency’s approved Blanket Area or Jurisdictional COA, the agency can request and receive approval from the FAA for an emergency Certificate of Waiver/Authorization. This will allow for the one-time operation of the UAS at that location based on an eminent risk to life-type event where manned aircraft may need to be diverted or temporarily discontinued.

First Steps

The first step in getting started is to coordinate the public declaration letter to the with your state attorney general’s office or county or city attorney.

Once that letter has been reviewed by the FAA’s legal office and deemed sufficient, the FAA will send your agency’s point of contact an online access form to be completed and returned to the FAA. It currently takes approximately 15 business days for the FAA to establish an account within the online program that is partitioned so as to allow for security of the data being entered by the public agency.

For more information, further guidance and clarification, FAA points of contact are below.

Part 107 Option

For operations under part 107, the following outlines the basic requirements and includes links to the FAA website where you can learn more.

Pilot Requirements

  • Must be at least 16 years old
  • Must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center**
  • Must be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA)

**A person who already holds a pilot certificate issued under 14 CFR part 61 and has successfully completed a flight review within the previous 24 months can complete a part 107 online training course at www.faasafety.gov to satisfy this requirement.

For more information, read about Remote Pilot Certification.

Aircraft Requirements

Operating Rules

  • Class G airspace*
  • Must keep the aircraft in sight (visual line-of-sight)*
  • Must fly under 400 feet*
  • Must fly during the day*
  • Must fly at or below 100 mph*
  • Must yield right of way to manned aircraft*
  • Must NOT fly over people*
  • Must NOT fly from a moving vehicle*

* All of these rules are subject to waiver

For more information about the new Small UAS Rule (Part 107), please see:

Summary of the Small UAS Rule (pdf)

Advisory Circular – How to Use the Rule (pdf)

Complete Text of the Small UAS Rule (pdf)

For more information about the processes, FAA points of contact are below.

FAA Points of Contact

John Meehan
HQ, Federal Aviation Administration
Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Office, AUS-430
Safety & Operations Branch

Steve Pansky/SAIC
Senior Aviation Analyst
Aviation Safety (AVS) Safety Technical Support Services (STSS)
Air Traffic and Law Enforcement/SAC-EC Liaison
Supporting Federal Aviation Administration
Unmanned Aircraft Systems Tactical Operations,
Emerging Technologies Team, AFS-85/AJV-115

  • Topics:
    • UAS
    • Technology
  • Resource Type:
    • Strategy development tool
    • 1-pager/ summary/ infographic
  • Organizational Author:
    • IAFC
    • External

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