The FAA’s YouTube channel has footage of a recent event where a panel of public safety experts discussed best practices for small electric unmanned aircraft, or drones. If you want to watch the video itself, it’s embedded below, but if you want to read my summary, scroll further down.
The panel consisted of:
- Kerry Fleming, FAA (Special Operations Support Center) SOSC Manager
- Mark Colborn, retired reserve senior corporal, Dallas PD Air Support Unit/UAS Squad
- Mike O’shea of the FAA’s office of resources, the former DOJ who worked on law enforcement aviation
- Richard Fields, Los Angeles City Fire Department, spearheaded the drone program
- Scott Harris, FAA Special Agent in Law Enforcement Assistance Program, USAF Reserve
What do they wish they knew when they started?
The first question the panel asked was what people want to know when they first start establishing public safety drone support programs.
The host started with Mark Colborne, who started the Dallas PD drone program. He says that when they first started, they chose the wrong drones, and that turned out to be a costly learning lesson with infrared cameras. Why? Because they were in a hurry. He thinks they probably should have asked for more “support equipment”, such as drone driving vehicles, support equipment, streaming video to incident commanders, etc. In other words, having the right gear is a big deal.
Richard Fields, of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, said they were lucky to start building the program slowly to make it more sustainable. They realized pretty quickly that they needed more than they thought and learned that they needed a long-term plan to keep the program going. Communication with everyone within the department, other agencies, and the FAA was also a challenge.
Michael O’Shea, of the FAA, says he tells people starting new programs that the FAA is here to help, and the FAA can put them in touch with people who know the ropes. Sometimes they suggest that a fledgling agency partner with other agencies that have a more established program. He also points them to good online FAA resources to help public safety agencies learn about regulatory requirements, licensing, etc.
Scott Harris, a LEAP (Law Enforcement Assistance Program) agent with the FAA, said the FAA is trying to help local and state agencies do their part of the drone problem. There are approximately 30 LEAP agents, located throughout the United States, who law enforcement can reach by emailing [email protected] or calling 844-FLY-MY-UA and asking for LEAP. The FAA is here to help law enforcement understand drone enforcement. LEAP also does a lot of fieldwork and training, both for drones and manned aircraft.
Kerry Fleming of the FAA’s Special Operations Support Center (SOSC) also supports local drone programs. I personally worked with SOSC on a project I did with the New Mexico DOT. When government agencies need quick permission to do something unusual or that requires a waiver, they can often give you that special permission if they can determine that it can be done safely. They are a good contact for agencies that need to do something quickly when the Drone Zone or LAANC cannot get permission to do something against the normal rules quickly enough.
Having SOSC on speed dial is definitely a good best practice for public safety and other government drone operators.
They also recommended contacting FSDO (Flight Services), other public agencies with established programs, and their state governments.
What best practices should agency drone operators consider?
Mark Colborn (Dallas PD) said departments should be sure to communicate with the public and get their support. You need to communicate with the city council, county commissioners, the media and others. Also, he recommends that drones be taken seriously. It’s easy to forget that they are airplanes and get into trouble. Drones are usually a side job for police officers, but in Dallas they have full-time drone operators in their department. He recommends it.
He later came back and said they wanted to have a policy first, including a target for drone people.
Richard Fields (LA Fire) said he agrees with Mark, especially when it comes to taking it seriously. He also recommends standardization, especially when there are so many agencies in an area (his area has 31). Making sure everyone is on the same page helps work collaboratively and safely. Working relationships are another big thing (and, from my graduate studies, he’s definitely right). The more people know before things go wrong, the more useful and safer drones will be. Ultimately, he says drones should be considered force multipliers rather than replacements for manned operations.
Should public safety personnel obtain part 107 certifications?
Michael O’Shea answered this. He said public safety agencies don’t necessarily need to get a 107, but they do need to have a public safety program that includes drone operators. Such a program must have documented training for the safe operation of airspace operators. In most cases, Part 107 is the easiest way to do this, even when flying under a COA instead of a 107 rule.
A COA is a certification that public safety programs can go through instead of setting up a 107-based program. Additionally, COAs can be granted for special situations (through the SOSC) to obtain more permits and approvals outside of the normal rules. If a department does not use a COA and uses a 107 operator, it can also obtain an exemption through SOSC.
Richard Fields (LA Fire) added that he thinks the 107 is “highly, highly, highly recommended,” even if the agency wants to fly under different rules.
Mark (Dallas PD) added that Dallas has adopted the NIST drone proficiency test, where operators have to fly around doing tasks like looking in bins. Obviously they have their 107, but it also helps people build muscle memory to work from the inside. This isn’t required, but he thinks it’s a good standard for training people. Dallas also does annual qualifiers.
Where can drones be useful in a way that manned aircraft are not?
Another question they addressed was where drones provide unique opportunities.
Richard Fields (LA Fire) said his area already has helicopters, but they are very expensive to operate. This leaves gaps in capability, both in terms of cost and pilot fatigue. Drones can often send images to multiple people, while helicopters cannot. In a wildland fire, water-dropping helicopter pilots can’t see much, and drones can meet that requirement.
Mark Colborn of the Dallas Police Department said that drones help a lot with protests. Recent protests following the Supreme Court’s recent decision on abortion have led to a great need for aerial surveillance, and drones have saved a lot of money while providing similar assistance. But we have to remember that drones can only do a fraction of what helicopters can do, so nobody will be out of a job here.
They ended up talking about a few more things, which you can watch above, but I think the group gave some good ideas on how to get a public safety drone program up and running.
Featured Image: Screenshot from FAA panel discussion on YouTube (embedded here).
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