As recently noted by our friends over at Public Safety Flight in their blog "Why Flying a UAS Under a COA as Public Aircraft Operations May Be the Wrong Choice for Most Agencies and Pilots" there are several key issues for public safety agencies to consider when flying under a COA. We strongly believe that the FAA COA is the most efficient and proper regulatory framework for most public agencies, but this blog points out several of the important issues that arise under COAs.
Let's cover these points one by one:
Make sure you know what you're doing
This may seem obvious, but a lot of public agencies are starting to use drones without fully understanding the risks and responsibilities of using UAS in public safety operations. We can't stress enough...UAS are not toys; they are powerful tools that can help save lives and money in the right hands.
Therefore it's important to understand the risks of flying UAS for public safety, and ensure that your program is fully-legal according to the standards set forth by the FAA, is well-trained, and has a replicable equipment management regime.
COA is for emergency missions
While we're major proponents of COA as the primary regulatory framework for public safety, there are use cases that do not fall under COA: two examples would be marketing videos and demo days/public outreach. For this reason, the FAA suggests that agencies have both a COA and Part 107 pilots to make sure that all of their missions are covered under FAA regulations. For emergency type missions, the COA is designed to allow maximum flexibility for public safety missions.
There is no certification framework for COA
One of the key benefits of COA is also one of its principle risks in the wrong hands. Under COA, departments are able to effectively determine their own standards for pilot certification. Pilots aren't required to take a test, prove they can fly, or even be an official member of the department to be "certified" by the department under COA. This gives the department lots of leeway to determine how they want to certified their pilots and operate their drone unit, but it also puts the risk on the department to ensure compliance and pilot competence.
This means all departments flying under COA must ensure they have a solid, replicable training regimen, unimpeachable SOP's, and flight/mission/equipment tracking procedures to ensure everyone is always up to the task of operating the drone program. As a rejoinder, Part 107 doesn't minimize this risk; it simply transfers the risk to the individual pilots as opposed to the department. While there is a FAA-approved test for Part 107 pilots, they are not required to prove they can fly a drone, create SOP's or a training regimen, or flight reporting requirements. This means Part 107 pilots are no less risky than COA.
What about FAR 91.3?
FAR 91.3 states: “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.” This is important. Very important. When a pilot is operating under a COA, the pilot in command is responsible for ensuring compliance, safe operating conditions, and that the flight is possible under COA. This should be familiar to public safety officials since it is similar to command structures for all missions. They key is to have SOP's and procedures in place that make it clear who is charge, and determine in advance the ways and types of missions UAS will be used for your department, and then ensuring all pilots and commanding officers understand the SOP's.
The ghost of lawsuits future
One of the biggest boogeymen of the public safety UAS industry is legal liability. Unfortunately, there is precious little information on this subject, since there isn't any legal precedence to point to for evidence of how the courts will respond. A common misconception is that pilot in command responsibility equals legal liability, but the FAA doesn't directly speak to that, and in the absence of legal precedence there is no way to know for sure whether individual pilots will be held legally liable for incidents, whether flying under COA or Part 107. At this point, there is simply no legal argument for or against COA, so ensuring against future legal jeopardy can only come from solid SOP's, competency standards, rigorous training regimens, and sufficient liability insurance held at the department level.
Operating a public safety drone program is a heavy responsibility, fraught with risks, but with adequate training and procedures, it is no riskier than any other division of public safety, and in fact can yield significant life-saving improvements. Helping departments navigate the complicated process of establishing a drone program is why we're here, and we've helped over 100 agencies grow into well-trained and legal programs.
If you'd like more information about starting a drone program, don't hesitate to reach out to us.