The success of several pioneering Law Enforcement UAS programs has prompted many other departments to follow suit with their own for tactical operations, patrol functions, accident reconstruction, search and rescue drones. The advantages that unmanned aerial systems provide in public safety are highlighted repeatedly in case studies. However, starting a UAS program involves much more than buying a professional drone and putting an agency’s name on the side. A department must consider the mission, their budget restraints, community image, and legal implications to name a few. In this blog, we will provide an overview of these aspects in hopes of orienting you towards the launch of a successful drone program for your department.
Defining the Mission
These are some of the questions that need to be answered. Some of the answers may come from an analysis of department data including frequency of certain calls, their location, and resources used. Collaborating with other divisions of the department may also orient you towards a clearer understanding of what’s needed. Defining the mission profile of your UAS program will determine the type of regulations that apply, the model of aircraft needed, and/or the type of training.
Before launching your police drone program, you need to identify the needs of your department. Will your UAS program augment an existing Air Support Unit (i.e. helicopter or airplane)? Will the drone in question be the only aerial asset available? Will the aircraft be used as a first responder, as some departments have done, or deployed during special incidents (search & rescue, SWAT operations, crime scene and accident reconstruction, etc.)? How large is your area of jurisdiction? Finally, what is the budget allocated for your program?
Despite being a public safety pilot, keep in mind you are not exempt from federal regulations. Night operations, flights over crowds, and Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights all face restrictions. Therefore, taking time to figure out what limits you face will determine the proper waivers and training required.
Operators have two options for approaching flight regulations: Part 107 and COA, or Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for Public Aircraft Operations.
The FAA’s Part 107 brings UAS operations into the National Airspace System. One of the benefits of operating under Part 107 is the extensive training available for pilots and proof of instruction. Furthermore, pilots are trained under national standards which assists in the deployment of UAS outside the area of jurisdiction. However, there are some restrictions under Part 107.
- An operating altitude limit of 400 feet AGL (above ground level);
- Visual Line of Sight operations only;
- Liability falling solely on the pilot; and
- Daytime flights only
Under Part 107, waivers and special permission must be obtained for:
- Night operations
- Flying over crowds
- Flying in Class B, C, D, and E airspace
- Flying in restricted airspace
Keep in mind that Part 107 is designed for civil operations and may not serve the needs of your public safety agency. However, the relative ease of entry may be enough to compensate for the additional restrictions.
Unlike Part 107, a Certificate of Authorization (COA) offers enormous operational flexibility to public safety agencies at the cost of a longer and more difficult approval timeline. Once approved by the FAA, your UAS program will be able to:
- Fly in applicable regions of controlled airspace,
- Integrate a night operations waiver directly into a COA, and
- Fly over people with specific safety measures
The Federal Aviation Administration is the governing body who will process and approve your COA once submitted. Defining your mission profile and researching the applicable regulations will establish the foundation of your agency’s UAS program. In the second part of this series, we will discuss various equipment options such as search and rescue drones or a thermal imaging drone used on a daily basis by other agency pilots. We will also be covering training course considerations available on-site or at our headquarters.