Back in February, Verizon honored first responders during a Super Bowl LIV advertisement. Though no one could have known it at the time, this ad foreshadowed the efforts of so many to keep us safe and connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I recently drove past the memorial to the Charleston 9, which commemorates nine firefighters who died when the roof of a furniture store collapsed suddenly during a tragic fire that occurred in 2007. My first child was a mere three days old, so for me the memorial is a poignant reminder that first responders put their lives on the line every day and that calamities don’t stop for the crises—or joys—in our lives.

Today, public agencies are turning to drones to support their COVID response and to help first responders conduct everyday emergency operations under the bounds of social distancing requirements. Here at Skyward, a Verizon company working in the drone industry, we are humbled to support first responders, healthcare workers, and other essential public services as they look to innovate with drones.

Drones are inherently well-suited for social distancing. They can support search and rescue, medical supply transport, law enforcement, and maintenance or security of infrastructure. Using drones, first responders can keep at a safe distance from others that may be ill, and provide surveillance coverage when there are reduced personnel or increased employee separation requirements.

A pandemic may not seem like the ideal time to start a new drone program, which can be a complex undertaking that requires time and planning. But given the circumstances and the benefits that drones can offer, we’d like to provide tips for supporting public agencies through the use of drones. 

In this article, I’ll explain some basic avenues for small businesses to support public entities, and then address regulatory considerations for all public interest drone operations. I’ll also explain the concept and program requirements of Public Aircraft Operations—which are different than Part 107 operations. Finally, I’ll show how to go about obtaining approval of emergency operations and provide some examples of public use cases. 

COVID-19 Response for Small Businesses

If you’re part of a small business looking to start using drones to help during this crisis, I recommend beginning with a focused, achievable goal and manageable use cases. Few organizations are in a position to implement comprehensive drone operations during a pandemic, so look at supporting another entity’s existing drone operations or enhancing an existing task in your business for which drones are not currently used. 

There are numerous resources for businesses impacted by the pandemic, and many industry-specific articles on how to obtain relief. It may be difficult to develop a new business relationship with a public entity in the midst of the pandemic, but it’s not impossible—especially for businesses with verified statuses such as Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE), Veteran and Service Disabled Veteran Owned Businesses (VOB/SDVOB), and through the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program. For most other businesses, we recommend looking at subcontracting to existing contractors, leveraging preexisting relationships, and looking at how drones can enhance or supplement existing contractual obligations.

Regulatory Considerations

Identifying a customer and use case is only the first step. The next step is to obtain regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the desired operations. Depending on where a drone will fly, operators may need an airspace authorization, which can often be obtained through Skyward’s software, or else through a direct request to the FAA.

More complicated is receiving the authority to operate drones for commercial purposes from the FAA. Operators have three different options. The most common and straightforward, is under Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR). The second is by obtaining a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA. The third, and least preferable option for most organizations, is operating under Part 135 of the FAR.

We recommend that operators work under Part 107 as much as possible — it’s straightforward and doesn’t require special approval from the FAA. Some advanced drone operations may require authorization under Part 135, but that is a lengthy process and only used in narrow circumstances. It may also make sense for public entities to operate under a COA, but only if the desired flight operations cannot be readily conducted under Part 107 or a Part 107 waiver. If you can’t determine which framework will work best for your company, ask a professional drone consultant like Skyward to help you look closely at your operations.

The FAA recommends operators develop Concepts of Operations (CONOPS) and ensure their flights operate within the parameters laid out by Part 107, even if operating under the COA umbrella. This is the level of risk FAA generally deems acceptable for drone operations in the National Airspace System.

Part 107 permits commercial drone operations without special authorization from the FAA, but not all types of operations are allowed. Certain operations, such as flying at night, flying beyond the visible line of sight (BVLOS) of the drone, and operating over people, are allowed only if the operator receives a waiver from the FAA. Waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis, and there is no guarantee that your organization will receive one. Additionally, certain operations are not waiverable under Part 107, including carrying hazardous materials. Package deliveries beyond visual line of sight are not waiverable under Part 107 if for compensation or hire, but there is the potential for a public entity to do so under a Part 107 waiver or COA.

Public Operations

Although we recommend all nascent drone programs operate under Part 107 operations, public agencies have the option to request and operate under a COA. This can be a significant undertaking, and an agency should have a well-developed drone program before applying for a COA. If granted a COA, a public agency can fly under the COA in urgent circumstances but still use Part 107 operations as much as possible.

When flying as a public aircraft, the government entity is not subject to airworthiness or pilot requirements of the FAR but must comply with the “all aircraft” requirements in Part 91 pertaining to air safety. Operating under a COA is limited to what the FAA refers to as the “core functions of government entities,” and the FAA has stated they have ultimate authority to decide if your specific operations qualifies—they have repeatedly refused to consider education as eligible for a public aircraft COA. The FAA has further stated that you cannot violate the statute, but rather you would “fail to qualify” as a public aircraft eligible to fly under a COA and therefore are subject to Part 107 rules.

An entity can apply for a COA online, but note that the FAA has very strict standards for approval. While the best time to develop a drone program is before drones are needed for an emergency response, it’s not too late to develop a COA for use in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond. At Skyward, we help public agencies develop CONOPS that lay the foundation for a drone program. We can help entities identify realistic operational goals and how to achieve them. We can also help drone businesses identify ways to support drone programs for public entities or even propose programs where none currently exist.

Emergency Response and COVID-19

It’s impossible to anticipate and prepare for every calamity, and COVID-19 is a painful reminder of that reality. Having a drone program in place is the best plan—requesting the FAA amend an existing waiver or COA so you can respond to an unexpected crisis is much easier than starting from scratch, but Skyward can support either way. The FAA’s Special Governmental Interest (SGI) process can expedite consideration of waivers, airspace authorizations, or COA requests. However, it does not lower the bar for the operational risk assessment.

The FAA has identified specific use cases for the SGI process, which includes firefighting, search and rescue, law enforcement, critical infrastructure restoration, incident response, assessments for disaster recovery related insurance claims, and crucial media coverage. The FAA has also recently voiced its support for those attempting to use the SGI process for COVID response, but only one waiver is known to have been issued.

There is currently no way for aspiring drone pilots to receive their Remote Pilot certification from the FAA, although a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) published on May 4, 2020 effectively extends recurrent testing deadline for certificated Part 107 drone pilots until June 30, 2020. This also means that small drone businesses have the opportunity to support public entities lacking their own drone pilots.

Fly Safe

Even as we focus most resources on responding to COVID-19, we must remain vigilant and prepare for other disasters. We are approaching what is predicted to be an above-average hurricane season in the Southeast, and the named storms of 2020 will not abide by stay-at-home orders. 

If your company or public agency needs help developing a safety case and applying for a waiver or COA, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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Header photo credit: South Carolina Ports – Columbus Street Terminal by drone
© David Lincoln, 2020