FAA Panel Discusses Drone Public Safety Best Practices

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The FAA’s YouTube channel has a recording of a recent event where a panel of experts in public safety discussed best practices for small electric unmanned aviation, or drones. If you’d like 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’s air support unit/UAS Squad
  • Mike O’shea from FAA resources office, prior DOJ working on law enforcement aviation
  • Richard Fields, Los Angeles City Fire Department, spearheaded drone program
  • Scott Harris, FAA Special Agent for Law Enforcement Assistance Program, USAF Reserve

What Do They Wish They Knew When They Got Started?

The first question the panel fielded was what people wish they knew when they first started establishing drone support programs for public safety.

The presenter started with Mark Colborn, who started Dallas PD’s drone program. He says that when they first got started, they chose the wrong drones, and it proved to be an expensive learning lesson with infrared cameras. Why? Because they got in a hurry. He feels like they should have probably asked for more “ancillary equipment,” like vehicles to drive the drones around, support equipment, streaming video to incident commanders, etc. In other words, having the right equipment is a big deal.

Richard Fields, from the Los Angeles City Fire Department, said they were fortunate that they started slow building the program to make it more sustainable. They figured out pretty fast that they needed more than they thought, and learned that they needed a long-term plan to keep the program going. Communicating with everybody inside the department, other agencies, and the FAA was also a challenge.

Michael O’Shea, from the FAA, says he tells people starting new programs that the FAA is there to help, and the FAA can get them in touch with people who know the ropes. Sometimes, they suggest that an agency getting started partners with other agencies who have a more established program. He also points them to good online FAA resources that help public safety agencies learn about regulatory requirements, licensing, etc.

Scott Harris, the LEAP agent (Law Enforcement Assistance Program) from the FAA, said that the FAA tries to help local and state agencies enforce their part of the drone issue. There are about 30 LEAP agents, spread out across the United States, that law enforcement can reach out to by e-mailing UAShelp@faa.gov or calling 844-FLY-MY-UA and asking for LEAP. The FAA is there to help law enforcement understand drone enforcement. LEAP also does a lot of outreach and training, for both drones and manned aircraft.

Kerry Fleming from the FAA Special Operations Support Center (SOSC) also supports local drone programs. I’ve personally worked with SOSC on a project I did with 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 it can be done safely. They’re a good contact for agencies needing to do something fast when the Drone Zone or LAANC can’t get you permission to do something against the normal rules fast enough.

Having SOSC on speed dial is definitely a good best practice for public safety and other government drone operators.

They also recommended reaching out to FSDO (Flight Services), other public agencies with established programs, and their state governments.

What Best Practices Should Drone Operators For Agencies Consider?

Mark Colborn (Dallas PD) said departments should be sure to communicate with the public and get their buy-in. City council, county commissioners, media, and others should all be communicated with. Also, he recommends taking drones seriously. It’s easy to forget that they’re aircraft and get into trouble. Drones are usually an extra duty police officers get, but in Dallas, they have full-time drone operators in their department. He recommends that.

He came back later and said they want to have policies in place first, including a goal for the drone people.

Richard Fields (LA Fire) said he agrees with Mark, especially about 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 with working collaboratively and safely. Working relationships is another big one (and, from my graduate studies, he’s definitely right). The more people know each other before things go wrong, the more useful and safe drones will be. Finally, he says drones should be thought of as force multipliers instead of a replacement for manned ops.

Do Public Safety Personnel Need To Get Part 107 Certificates?

Michael O’Shea answered this. He said that public safety agencies don’t necessarily need to get a 107, but they have to have a public safety aviation program that includes drone operators. Such a program needs to have documented training for an operator’s safe operation in the airspace. In most cases, the Part 107 is the easiest way to do that, even when flying under a COA instead of 107 rules.

A COA is a certificate public safety programs can go through instead of setting up a 107-based program. Additionally, COAs can be granted for special situations (through SOSC) to get more permission and approvals outside of normal rules. If a department doesn’t use a COA, and uses 107 operators, they can also get waivers 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 adopted a NIST test for drone proficiency, where operators have to fly around performing tasks like looking in buckets. They obviously have their 107, but it also helps people build muscle memory for operating close inside. This isn’t required, but he thinks it’s a good standard to train people to. Dallas does annual qualifications, too.

Where Can Drones Be Useful In Ways Manned Aircraft Aren’t?

Another question they addressed was where drones give unique capabilities.

Richard Fields (LA Fire) said that his area already has helicopters, but they’re very expensive to operate. This leaves capability gaps, both in terms of expense or pilot fatigue. Drones can often send imagery to multiple people while helicopters cannot. On a wildland fire, helicopter pilots dropping water can’t see many things, and drones can fit that requirement.

Mark Colborn from Dallas PD said that drones help a lot with protests. The recent protests after the recent Supreme Court abortion decision led to a lot of need for aerial overwatch, and drones saved a lot of money while providing similar help. But, we need to remember that drones can only do part of what helicopters can do, so nobody’s going to find themselves out of a job here.

They discussed a few more things at the end, which you can watch above, but I think the group gave some good ideas on how to establish and run a public safety drone program.

Featured Image: A screenshot from the FAA panel discussion on YouTube (embedded here).

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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