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Getting Your Unmanned Aircraft Program Off the Ground

Because of relaxed FAA requirements for law enforcement operations of unmanned aircraft, now is a very good time for agencies to consider adding "drones" to their emergency response resources.

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Law enforcement is a proving ground for technology. Law enforcement leaders are routinely seeking training and equipment that would maximize the efficiency of their agencies, while reducing the budgetary impact to the citizens they serve. In recent years, the revolutionary technology of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have been tested by agencies across the country to see if they can be an effective and economical tool for law enforcement operations.

Since UAS arrived on the market, law enforcement agencies have been reviewing the potential benefits, and weighing the options for obtaining unmanned aircraft. The reason why law enforcement has so much interest in unmanned aircraft is that a UAS is much more cost-effective than a traditional aviation unit, which requires substantial investment in personnel, maintenance, hangar space, and fuel. But the path to move from concept development of a technology to operational deployment can be filled with obstacles. So before proceeding with unmanned aircraft programs, agencies will want to consider some of the following information.

Program Philosophy

It is important that a law enforcement agency develop a program philosophy before making a decision to purchase and implement a UAS. This means the agency's leaders have to determine why the agency needs a UAS and what it will be used for.

Don't "silo" the UAS for only one type of use. Unmanned aircraft have a wide range of uses in law enforcement and careful consideration should be given to all of them. Agencies can operate a UAS for a variety of missions including: search and rescue, natural disaster scene assessment, crash reconstruction, crime scene photography, elevated position search, open space search, 3D mapping, and gathering intelligence during tactical operations. Unmanned aircraft can also be beneficial in SWAT operations, but officer safety is a consideration in tactical environments. Usage of a UAS in a SWAT situation may expose the UAS pilot, who is operating the aircraft from the ground, to a high-risk environment.

Once an agency has selected the missions its UAS will perform, it needs to consider what type of sensor the UAS will carry. There is an expansive list of sensors that an unmanned aircraft can be equipped with, including electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR), air data relay, synthetic aperture radar, and LIDAR, just to name a few. Agency mission and need characteristics should be addressed and discussed with potential vendors to ensure the UAS the agency purchases will fully serve the developed program philosophy.

Laws and Regulations

Law enforcement has a duty to the public to operate a UAS in a safe and transparent manner. Compliance with federal, state, and local laws will apply just as they would to a police officer on foot. Before investing in a UAS, review U.S. and state laws, and local ordinances that apply to unmanned aircraft operations and how they might affect your planned mission or missions for your UAS.

During the program development phase, involve the citizens you serve and local elected officials. Community messaging carefully managed by the agency can reduce incorrect assumptions about the UAS such as the inference of the UAS being used as a spy tool or a weapon. The agency will want to develop a robust standard operating procedure that covers the entire program: equipment, personnel selection and training, operations, maintenance, and administrative procedures.

Agencies will also need to work with local air traffic control jurisdictions, including air traffic control towers, airport managers, and terminal radar control operators. The local air traffic control jurisdiction may require a letter of agreement or memorandum of understanding, which is over and above the Federal Aviation Administration requirements, from the agency regarding UAS operations. Most importantly, agencies should consult with the FAA for regulatory guidance.

The FAA has three defined classifications of UAS operations: hobbyists, civil, and public use. Hobbyists are private citizens who own a UAS and fly for recreation. Civil aviators fly for hire, and are also known as "commercial" pilots. Finally, agents of the government such as federal, state, county, tribal, or municipal law enforcement agencies are known as "public use" aircraft operators by the FAA. All UAS categories of operators must register their UAS with the FAA prior to operation. Public use operators have to submit the registration on paper. Information on UAS registration can be found at

Public Use Restrictions

Hobby pilots must comply with FAA Advisory Circular 91-57A. There is no pilot license or special permit required to fly recreationally. In general, hobby pilots must be at least 13 years old, fly safe, and must notify local air traffic control jurisdictions to advise them of the recreational flight. With the recent adoption of 14 CFR Part 107 (Part 107), civil pilots can now fly much easier as well. In general, civil pilots are required, at a minimum, to obtain an FAA UAS (RPV) certificate or an FAA-approved equivalent. The aircraft must be no more than 55 pounds in total weight. Part 107 indicates that civil pilots can only fly in uncontrolled airspace, at or below 400 feet above ground level, daytime flight, at or below 100 mph, not over people, and not from a moving vehicle. The FAA points out that Part 107 requirement may be waived by the FAA if the civil pilots submit a request.

Public use operators have historically utilized the certificate of authorization (COA) process to obtain permission to operate a UAS. Under COA requirements, law enforcement operators used to be required to have a pilot license for manned aircraft that was current within 90 days according to 14 CFR Part 61, and a current biennial flight review, just to pilot a UAS.

Requiring all public safety UAS operators to be current manned aircraft pilots was one of the most crippling requirements for public use UAS programs. Law enforcement agencies weren't typically staffed with licensed pilots outside of a functional aviation unit. Further, law enforcement agencies are not financially able to train a police officer to be an aircraft pilot just for the sole purpose of operating a UAS. This was typically where most agencies would abandon the UAS concept. Consequently, only a handful of agencies stayed the course and received a COA for UAS operations.

With the arrival of Part 107 for civil operations in the summer of 2016, the FAA elected to remove some of the COA restrictions in effect for public use agencies. Under Part 107, there are two options for a public use agency seeking permission to operate a UAS: the agency can choose to comply with Part 107 or the agency can obtain a "blanket" COA for uncontrolled airspace. The blanket COA allows operators to pilot a UAS of no more 55 pounds in total weight, under visual meteorological conditions (VMC), at or below 400 feet, and at certain distances from airports. While this revision of FAA COA requirements was helpful for organizations that are seated in an area of uncontrolled airspace, it did not provide immediate relief to agencies whose jurisdictions lie within areas of controlled airspace.

Fortunately, the FAA recognized the need to relax some of the COA requirements, specifically for UAS operations in public use environments after Part 107 was released. So there were some changes applied to public use agencies with current COAs. These changes, known as "pen-and-ink" changes, became effective in July 2016. Now, current COA holders are no longer required to have FAA manned aircraft licensed pilots. Each jurisdiction must establish its own training and implement it.

This means a public use agency is no longer required to prove its UAS operators' training and certification to the FAA. With the relief provided from the previous rules, the ability for public use agencies, specifically law enforcement, to obtain a COA and fly in a much more financially viable manner now exists. New COA applicants will be able to conform to the same rules of current COA holders; no pilot licenses will be required. 

Getting Certified

Once a jurisdiction has developed a program philosophy, obtained an aircraft, and successfully registered the UAS, then and only then can the agency begin the COA application process. The FAA provides a Website ( that allows public use agencies to create an account, apply for a COA, and monitor the process along the way. The FAA COA Website allows for documents to be uploaded and communication between the FAA and the applicant can be easily exchanged.

Agencies will be required to issue airworthiness certification for their unmanned aircraft systems. Also, the agency will be required to certify itself as a public use entity. It is important that the agency read and understand the FAA Website regarding COA applications and approval. Each agency is different from the next agency, and each application is different from the next. All COAs are aircraft and jurisdiction specific. So changes to geographic borders or the acquisition of a new aircraft will require a new COA.

Yes, the process for starting an unmanned aircraft program is daunting. But if your agency conducts proper research and develops the program beforehand, the hurdles can be minimized. And the time is right, if your agency has the need for a UAS program because for the first time since the development of UAS technology we are seeing the FAA relax some of the requirements for public use unmanned aircraft operations. This presents an opportunity for some agencies to get their UAS programs off the ground.

Your first step is to contact your local FAA representative or check the FAA Website ( for assistance. Regulations change frequently, so carefully monitoring the changes will also avoid hurdles.

Unmanned aircraft can be a valuable asset in law enforcement operations, and the profession is just beginning to realize the potential. Benefits can include improving officer safety, minimizing officer committed time, expanding command perspectives of a law enforcement event, or even helping reconstruct crime scenes in a more advanced manner. UAS uses are only limited by the agency and its ability to expand the uses. Also, UAS technology can provide a notable positive financial impact for both jobs and equipment, and those benefits can be felt in law enforcement jurisdictions.

The next steps for UAS operations in law enforcement include standardizing UAS practices and uses across professional organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). One important step to make UAS programs more effective in law enforcement operations is to integrate unmanned aircraft as a resource type into the incident command system.

Lt. Brook Rollins is the commander for technical services at the Arlington (TX) Police Department. He is also the program manager for the department’s UAS program.

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