By now, the news is out: drones are here to stay for public safety agencies, but despite all the talk about these flying sensors in the fire/rescue community, there is still a lack of good information about how, when and why agencies should start these programs.
When thinking about a drone program for your department, there are four major points of consideration:
- Which equipment you need to get
- What FAA regulations that apply to you
- What type of training is necessary
- What types of policies are important to get in place
Let’s take these one at a time.
Before you ever start talking about which drone to buy, it’s important to consider your mission. As tempting as it is to ask for the biggest, most expensive aircraft and sensors on the market, that may not always be the best choice.
There are several common mission profiles — search and rescue, HAZMAT response, fire surveillance, crowd monitoring, wildfire and joint operations with law enforcement, just to name a few.
The single biggest contributing factor to the equation on which drone or drones to purchase comes down to one thing — do you need a thermal camera?
If you don’t, there are several low-cost, very high-end drones on the market that’ll serve most of your needs quite well.
Those aircraft include the DJI Spark, Mavic Air, Mavic 2 Zoom, Mavic 2 Enterprise and Phantom lines, for starters. The Autel Evo, Parrot’s Anafi and several different Yuneec models will also fit the bill.
If you do in fact need a thermal imaging camera, your budget expectations should have just gone up, but, not as high as they once would have.
Now with the advent of the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual for right around $3,000; Parrot’s Anafi Thermal, Yuneec’s H520 and an upcoming product from Autel with thermal, there are many less expensive models to choose from.
Most of these utilize the FLIR Lepton thermal imager and offer resolutions in the 160 range.
Autel and Yuneec both have thermal imaging aircraft in the works utilizing FLIR’s Boson core, which will have 300 and 600 resolution sensors; and will clock in around the $10,000 mark.
Finally, when you step up to the “big boys,” you get DJI’s Matrice 200 series, which offers you access to the XT2 dual daylight/thermal payload based on FLIR’s Tau core, and they’ll run you north of $20,000 for both the aircraft and the sensor.
DJI also offers the Zenmuse Z30 camera, a 30x optical/6x digital zoom payload for the Matrice series.
All told, if you’re looking to find an aircraft that’ll fit through a window, the Matrice isn’t it — any of these smaller models will do the trick at a much lower price point.
Similarly, if you’re looking to read a HAZMAT placard from a half-mile away, you’ll need that 180x combined zoom power of the Z30 camera on the DJI Matrice 200 or 210 models.
There are also many specialty options, including Flyability’s Elios 2, which has a carbon fiber ball surrounding the drone, that make it perfect for flying in tight spaces.
Next, let’s talk FAA regulations.
There are three main ways for people to fly drones legally in the United States. The first is under hobbyist rules, but because you’re not doing this as a hobby, let’s skip that one for now.
The other two are 14 CFR Part 107 rules, largely intended for commercial operators, and the Certificate of Authorization, or COA for short.
Both of these have benefits for public safety agencies, but there are some key differences.
Under Part 107 rules, operators can fly up to 400 feet above ground, during daylight hours, in uncontrolled or Class G airspace, and within visual line-of-sight between the drone and operator.
The FAA does offer a waiver process to fly at nighttime, in controlled airspace, and outside of line-of-sight. Some of these waivers are easier to obtain than others, particularly the controlled airspace waivers which are largely done under a system called the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification system or LAANC (pronounced Lance) for short.
Part 107 is obtained and maintained by the operator themselves, and those wishing to get a 107 certificate must take a 60-question written test at an FAA-approved testing center. The test costs roughly $150 but varies from center to center. This certification is valid for two years, after which point you must take a 40-question renewal test.
By comparison, the COA is obtained by the public safety agency, and allows the department to certify its own operators.
This method of approval is only available to public safety agencies, and a COA should only be used when flying in emergency situations; but, because it is maintained by the agency rather than the individual, it allows departments to add new pilots without having to pay for each one to take the FAA written test.
There are two main types of COAs, the blanket COA and the jurisdictional COA. The blanket COA covers your department for the same circumstances as Part 107, but automatically allows for nighttime flight, and flight over crowds of people in the event of an emergency. It is also useable anywhere in the United States, provided you are in uncontrolled, or class G airspace.
The jurisdictional COA covers you for your jurisdiction, regardless of class of airspace. This is useful for departments that have airports — particularly busy ones — within their response territories and is the most permissive level of authorization available to a department.
A third of type of COA — a special governmental interest or SGI COA — exists, to allow departments to operate outside the limits of either their jurisdictional or blanket COAs, and in an emergency. These are available by calling the FAA’s system operations support center during an emergency and asking for an SGI COA.
So, which is the right method of certification for you? It’s tricky to answer in one article, but the short answer is — both. The FAA now routinely recommends that departments maintain a COA to authorize the departments program, while also asking individual pilots to maintain a Part 107 certification, for instances where flying under the COA is not authorized.
A good example of this would be if your department were asked to fly their drone to get video of a parade. This would be considered a marketing function, and not part of a public safety mission, so a 107 certification would be required.
There are two very different, and equally important types of training — ground-based training and flight training.
Ground school focuses largely on understanding different types of airspace, various weather products that are available to pilots, sound aeronautical decision making, resource management and operating in and around airports.
Most of these things are on the Part 107 test, and prep courses are available in the form of online and in-person training around the country.
But passing the 107 test isn’t enough, and that’s where flight training comes in.
Working with experienced drone pilots or trainers to insure you are capable of flying the aircraft in normal and emergency circumstances is absolutely critical to ensuring you operate a safe drone program.
Many companies offer excellence hands-on flight training, and most will conduct training on-site at your location.
Although the COA doesn’t come with any specific instructions for self-certifying your departments’ pilots, it’s critical that you don’t skimp on good training. You can be sure that if something goes wrong, FAA safety inspectors will absolutely be looking at the length and quality of the training you received.
Policies and Procedures
This is the least fun part of the equation but is another critical factor to insure you have a safe and successful drone program.
Each departments’ policies and procedures look a little bit different, but here are just a few examples of things you need to consider when writing yours.
First, it’s important to establish mission profiles, and standing SOPs for when you will use drones on a call and when you shouldn’t. These should also take into account things like weather minimums and pilot certifications.
Next, always consider where drone pilots fall within the incident command structure and ensure that you’re giving drone pilots the authority to make a go/no-go decision based on the circumstances on the ground without influence from command.
Finally, issues like privacy, when you do and do not need a warrant to operate, and records retention are also very important to consider as part of this process.
Starting a drone program may feel like a large undertaking for your department and may even stretch budgets past the point of comfort. But when it comes to the business of saving lives, a properly organized drone program can be an absolutely critical tool in the toolbox.