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FAA Setting New Rule Framework for Unmanned Aircraft Use

by Mike Kennedy

EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

It is clear that video has established its value for First Responders. Police vehicles use dash-cams to record the scene, the fire service uses video for training purposes and many are starting to use helmet cams. Police aircraft routinely record video of high speed pursuits, suspect foot pursuits and other incidents. Wearable body cams are becoming more and more common and many bomb tech teams use ground robots equipped with video cameras to remotely dispose of explosive threats. Except for air assets, none of these provide the bird’s eye view of an entire scene. In order to understand an entire scene one must first see it, if one can’t see an entire scene, how then can they understand it?

Helicopters are expensive. Aircraft fuel is expensive. Pilots are expensive. Some Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS); commonly referred to as drones by the general public and the media, comparably, are not nearly as expensive. While not replacing manned air assets, the military has used small UAS for decades to capture the bird’s eye view that enhances situational awareness. Some police forces have also used them for the same reason. However, many agencies are not aware of their ability to use these UAS as tools, or have seen the task of acquiring them and getting approval to fly as too time-consuming.

The past few years have seen a serious push by law enforcement agencies including the Department of Homeland Security (through the RAPS Program), as well as Disaster Response agencies such as FEMA. Privacy advocates have made it harder still. For instance, in Seattle, the mayor forced the chief to abandon his plans for UAS use before they actually got underway. Privacy concerns were noted as the primary reason for the mayor’s decision. In the media accounts about this, Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington called the decision NOT to utilize drones because “Drones would have given police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy and there was never a strong case made that Seattle needed the drones for public safety.” The balance of privacy rights and the increased availability and use of drones has raised legitimate concerns.

The strong push to provide guidance for use, while balancing privacy and federal law have resulted in a proposed rule framework to guide the integration of UAS into the national airspace for public safety organizations. In February of this year, the FAA published a framework of regulations. In the overview of the proposed rule, there are 19 operational limitations. Some of the most important include that the UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds, be operated within visual line-of-sight of the operator or visual observer (not required) at all times, must not be flown directly over any persons, except those involved in the operation, and UAS must be flown in daylight only.

The weight requirement of less than 55 pounds is important because getting the bird’s eye view to enhance situational awareness really requires only a good quality camera, and there are a plethora of UAS in this size group that offer that. It is easy to fall into the eventual death spiral of scope or requirements creep. I worked technology programs for the army for a long time and saw it happen. The Army needed a smaller, more compact, lighter assault rifle than the M16 so the M4 Carbine was born. However, the M4 carbine now has a variety of accessories that when attached make it heavier than the M16. The Army originally wanted a small UAS that soldiers could use to see over the next hill or the next city block, and they got it, but this grew into several classes of UAS employed at different echelons. The point is this, keep your requirements for a UAS simple.

The new FAA rule framework also rightly places some restrictions on operators:

   •   Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
   •   Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
   •   Obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating (like existing pilot airman certificates, never expires).
   •   Pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months.
   •   Be at least 17 years old.
   •   Make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required to be kept under the proposed rule.
   •   Report an accident to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in injury or property damage.
   •   Conduct a preflight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is safe for operation.

While airworthiness certification is not required, all aircraft must be properly marked and the operator must maintain a small UAS in condition for safe operation and prior to flight must inspect the UAS to ensure that it is in a condition for safe operation. Small UAS must also be registered with the FAA. Just like manned aircraft, all small UAS must be properly marked. The FAA makes a provision though for aircraft that are too small for marking by saying that the aircraft “simply needs to display markings in the largest practicable manner.

The FAA also released a quick guide called Know Before You Fly, which can be accessed here. All law enforcement and public safety agencies fall under the public entities section. At the Ready has previously published several articles on UAS, getting Certificates of Authorization, employment, and some new technology innovations as well. The links below will take you to those articles.

Privacy Concerns and Unmanned Vehicles, a Legal View- March 2013
Enhanced Perspective, Unmanned Vehicles and First Responders- March 2013
At the Front - Unmanned Systems for First Responders- August 2013
Getting Started - Adding Unmanned Aircraft to Your Department Resources- September 2013
Unmanned Air Vehicles - Training and Technical Procedures of Operation- October 2013
Seeing Leads to Understanding, Understanding to Better Response: Distributed Video for First Responders- March/April 2014
911 Response Times: Could a Technology Revolution Be at Hand?- August/September 2014

On the flipside, the FAA calls on local law enforcement to help them enforce laws against unauthorized use of UAS. The FAA is responsible for enforcing federal aviation regulations, but recognize that local law enforcement officials are generally in the best position to do that. The FAA has published Law Enforcement Guidance for Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations. The full document can be found here.

As is often the case, State and even local governments make rules and regulations that are similar to and in some cases, different than Federal rules and regulations. Check at the local and state level!

For instance, in 2013, Virginia released Unmanned Aircraft Systems-Protocols for use by Law Enforcement Agencies.

Similarly, in 2014, North Carolina issued a Report to the to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Information Technology on UAS use in North Carolina. It contains a legislative request that states,” Until July 1, 2015, no State or local governmental entity or officer may procure or operate an unmanned aircraft system or disclose personal information about any person acquired through the operation of an unmanned aircraft system unless the State CIO approves an exception specifically granting disclosure, use, or purchase.” You can read the full report here.

At publication, many states have passed laws regulating the use of UAS by Law Enforcement personnel. Check with your state before you fly.

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