Public Safety UAS Operations: A primer on how we got here

Public Safety UAS Operations: A primer on how we got here

The proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has created the opportunity for public safety and first responders to employ aerial assets that were once left to departments and agencies with large budgets capable of supporting manned aircraft. Helicopters and airplanes incur significant maintenance costs associated with every hour of flight. There’s the cost of pilot training, insurance, hangar leases, registrations, and other variables that bar even the most forward thinking agency from putting an asset in the air. The advent of small UAS has changed that and we’re now seeing more interest by public safety looking to take advantage of this technology.

To explain some of the challenges facing public safety entities wishing to employ UAS, a little walk back in history is needed to develop a meaningful understanding of where this technology is today. Is it drone or UAS? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the industry sees the terms as interchangeable and perfectly acceptable. I’ll continue to use UAS for consistency.

Small UAS have been around for many years and much of the public don’t realize this. Remote controlled (RC) model aircraft have been used by enthusiasts around the world and enjoyed as a hobby or in competitions for years without any issues impacting manned aircraft. Often times RC aircraft operate in close proximity to airports and because of this, RC pilots operate under a community based set of guidelines that addresses flying neighborly such as: What happens when a manned aircraft approaches? What happens when an operator loses control of the model aircraft?

The FAA had traditionally left these RC users alone until quadcopters and similar aircraft started to appear. In 1981, the FAA issued an Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57 which noted the following: “Modelers, generally, are concerned about safety and do exercise good judgement when flying model aircraft. However, model aircraft can at times pose a hazard to full-scale aircraft in flight and to persons and property on the surface.” This all changed however, with the explosive proliferation of quad copters appearing under Christmas trees and low costs to consumers around 2014.

The FAA was caught off guard by how quickly the popularity of these new aircraft began to emerge and attempted to put regulations on something that they had clearly stated fell outside of their purview. The issue came to a head when Ralph Pirker came to the attention of the FAA while selling his video services collected during a UAS flight (see Huerta V. Pirker). The FAA attempted to fine Pirker for operating an aircraft “for compensation or hire” without the proper certification. In the end, the case was settled for a small fine unrelated to the offence implied by the FAA. This case caused the FAA to have to finally address the issue of UAS and the potential impact on the National Airspace System (NAS).

Congress realized the economic potential of small UAS on the US economy and mandated the FAA to integrate these “aircraft” into the NAS by September 2015 or they would fail to receive further funding. The leverage used was issued through the FAA Modernization and Reauthorization Act of 2012 (FMRA). With this specific language, it began to emerge that the FAA would identify UAS as aircraft for the first time and outlined the size, scope and areas where these new systems could be used.

Section 333 of this act outlined the procedures for operators wishing to conduct business using UAS. The operator had to demonstrate they could fly safely under specific conditions prior to engaging in any for profit operations. Once this was achieved, the operator would be free to conduct his business within the pre-established parameters.

Section 334 of the FMRA covered public use operators and provided for certain exemptions if operated safely, and narrowly defining how the aircraft could be used. The exemption allows for public safety entities to petition the FAA for relief from certain regulations in order to conduct flights directly associated with life and safety missions. The FAA would evaluate the request for a Certification of Authorization or Waiver (COA) and clearly define how a UAS would be used. The application process to obtain a COA has significantly improved from when it was first implemented.

Section 336 stated that hobbyists would remain free from FAA oversight provided they would adhere to community based rules for safety such as those listed by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). These rules which have been in place for many years are what most RC pilots follow.

In August of 2016, the FAA finally released the Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 107 (almost a year after the mandate) which was a first step in moving away from the COA process and fully integrating UAS into the NAS. Part 107 allows for commercial and public use operations that are similarly covered for manned aircraft without the burden of applying for a COA. Some restrictions still currently apply such as no night flights, flights over people, and no UAS operations near major airports like Philadelphia, Newark-Liberty, or others which are classified as Class B airspace. However, there is a process to get waivers for these restrictions if a request is made stating the need for these types of operations.

Last year, the FAA announced the launching of the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) which was intended to partner state, and local governments with public and private sector operators, commercial operators and manufacturers to accelerate the safe integration of UAS into the NAS by identifying current roadblocks. The program’s intention is to help the FAA develop new rules that allow more complex low-altitude operations by identifying ways to balance local and national interests, improving communications with local, state and federal jurisdictions, addressing security and privacy risks, and accelerating the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations.

The May 10, 2018 announcement that identified ten test sights that were awarded with the FAA UAS Integration Pilot Program designation. It is expected that the developments achieved within these test sights will be instrumental in breaking down some of the barriers that currently exist restricting commercial and public safety operations by making UAS common in the NAS and not requiring special permissions, waivers and eventually the phasing out of COAs.

By understanding the beginnings of the UAS integration process, and as UAS become more frequent in use, air traffic controllers will become more comfortable with operations conducted inside of the airspace they are responsible for. What is important to remember, when conducting any UAS operation, even under emergency or exigent circumstances, there is no asking for forgiveness. Having knowledge of the rules ahead of time saves the agency from lot of potential headaches. No one wants to hear: “Hi, I’m from the FAA and I’m here to help”. If an agency wants to push the limits, it usually ends badly for the errant operator.