As many public safety organizations (PSOs) begin to implement and realize the immediate and tangible benefits of using drones in their operations, one of the most critical aspects of becoming fully operational and compliant in the eyes of the FAA is obtaining a Part 107 (for drone pilots) and a Certificate of Authorization (COA) for governmental and nonprofit organizations. Technically, a police officer, firefighter, or other first responder can operate under either set of regulations, but there are some key differences that should dictate what path to take. Aside from hardware and software considerations, the important question an organization or first responder should ask is how do they plan to use drones in their operations.
A Part 107 Operator’s Certificate (or simply drone license) was created as a framework for commercial drone pilots to safely operate and abide by the established drone rules and is a first step towards integrating drones into the National Airspace System (NAS). Though not a skills-based proficiency test, the pilot must pass a “remote pilot in charge” airman knowledge exam and re-test every two years to remain current. Jonathan Rupprecht provides a comprehensive summary of the rules but in general the main rules for flying under a Part 107 are as follows:
Categorized as “Civil Aircraft Operations”
Liability/responsibility typically falls on the individual
Allows for daytime flights during civil twilight (waiver possible)
Must get authorization to fly in classified airspace (B, C, D, and E)
Allows for operations under 400 ft AGL
Operation of aircraft must be within visual line of sight of the operator (waiver possible)
For governmental and nonprofit organizations, obtaining a COA is a very good option and offers a tremendous level of flexibility. From police and fire departments to public schools and municipalities, a COA formalizes the legitimacy of an organization’s drone program and provides a layer of accountability and transparency to the community it serves. Although a lengthier process than that of the Part 107, it begins when an organization submits a Public Declaration Letter to the FAA, and once approved, the organization can proceed through the FAA’s online portal. The agency must also self-certify that pilots have completed flight training and are medically fit to fly. Some of the key rules are:
Categorized as “Public Aircraft Operations”
Liability/responsibility typically falls on the agency
Allows for nighttime flights
Pre-approval to fly in classified airspace (B, C, D, and E)
Allows for operations under 400 ft AGL (and possibly above)
Operation of aircraft must be within visual line of sight of the operator
Benefits of Having One, or Both
As you can see, both the Part 107 and COA have their advantages, but ultimately it’s the organization in which the first responders operate in that should dictate what path best to take. Since the Part 107 is geared towards the individual and the COA towards the organization, the biggest consideration to take into account is whether an individual working for an agency or the agency itself will be conducting flights at night and near airports. For small organizations looking to quickly spool up a UAS program, the Part 107 might be the fastest way to legally operate in the eyes of the FAA (though still requiring night time waivers and airspace authorizations). For larger organizations with several pilots, it simply makes sense to proceed with the COA application process to make sure all your bases are covered.
In an ideal world, we recommend first responders obtain their Part 107 AND the agency in which they operate have a COA. You may fly under one of the other, but by having both, drone pilots are equipped with the book knowledge that likely surpasses what it means to be “self-certified” through the agency. Organizations that have a COA with Part 107 pilots have the ultimate flexibility and are able to perform routine flights under the Part 107, but additionally under the COA can operate beyond their jurisdiction and in controlled airspaces. We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out other considerations regarding these authorizations including the cost of the Part 107 exam ($150), the risk and liability to the individual or agency, and the fact that nearly all public safety flights can be legally flown by Part 107. The reality is that until there are Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) set in place, the FAA is pushing for Part 107s as the operational standard likely making blanket COAs a thing of the past much like the ill-fated 333 Exemption. The devil’s in the details so please do your research!
Quick Authorizations for Emergency Operations
Drones are increasingly being used in all types of emergency situations from firefighting and law enforcement to search and rescue operations. With time being of the essence, both Part 107 operators and those flying under a COA can apply for quick authorizations through the Special Governmental Interest (SGI) process. Please note that through this expedited process, only airspace authorizations, beyond visual line of sight waivers (BVLOS), and night waivers are available.
Drones are truly a transformative technology for public safety and beyond. As one of many tools for first responders, their ability to deliver timely decision quality data to stakeholders can often make the difference and lead to more successful outcomes. Building a UAS/drone program with adherence to FAA regulations is just one component of a successful program. The other components involve making smart decisions about hardware and software. Our drone software platform was built specifically for first responders from the ground up — and we’re fully committed to supporting and ensuring more positive outcomes in public safety while building greater trust from the communities in which they serve.