Navigating the legal considerations for using a drone in a police or fire department can be complicated.
Should your department pursue Part 107 certification, a Certificate of Authorization (COA), or both?
In this guide, we’ll cover both options so that you can determine what makes the most sense for your department.
Choosing Between a COA and Part 107 Certification
Before we go any farther, let’s define our terms.
According to the FAA, federal, state, and local government offices can fly UAVs to support specific missions, such as search and rescue, under either the FAA’s Part 107 rule or by obtaining a COA.
This means that, if you work at a police or fire department, you can fly under either a COA or under the Part 107 rule.
Operating under the FAA’s Part 107 rule means that the drone pilot or pilots who will be conducting operations for your public agency each need to take the FAA’s Aeronautical Knowledge Test (also called the Part 107 test) and obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, as well as complying with the other requirements listed in the Part 107 rule.
On the other hand, obtaining a COA means submitting an application to the FAA and waiting to receive authorization for your police or fire department’s proposed UAV operations.
So which one is right for your organization?
Part 107 Considerations
On the one hand, if you’re trying to get your drone program going quickly Part 107 certification can generally be obtained faster than a COA.
Many public agencies we’ve spoken with chose to obtain both a COA and Part 107 certification—in this model, they generally pursue parallel paths, working on and submitting the COA application while also having their pilots study for and take the Part 107 test to obtain their Remote Pilot Certificate.
Although speed is one reason to have your pilots get their Part 107 while waiting on your COA application to be processed and approved, another reason is that having both a COA and a Part 107 certification signals to the public and other local entities that all steps are being taken by your public agency to create a thorough, well-organized drone operation.
As Tom Agos, Crime Prevention Specialist for the Gurnee Police Department in Gurnee, Illinois told us:
We feel like it’s smart to do both because it adds a certain air of professionalism to the program. The [Part 107] licensing of the pilots is for the benefit and protection of our officers, to reassure the public that we are taking all responsible steps to do things safely and by the book, and it’s also for our insurance carrier.
Given how closely scrutinized a new drone program at a police or fire department might be, having both in place could be a good way to make sure you’ve got all your bases covered, and that you’re putting the right foot forward when it comes to public perception.
On the other hand, a COA can provide a great deal of flexibility for your drone operations, but it’s also a longer and more difficult process to obtain one than it is to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate through the Part 107 rules.
To be more specific, when it comes to the flexibility a COA can provide, the Part 107 rules prohibit:
- Flying beyond visual line of sight
- Flying over people
- Flying above 400 feet
- And flying in controlled airspace
You can apply for a waiver or special authorization for each of these types of activities, but these applications can be slow to process, and in some cases may not be issued.
But if you have a COA, you’ll have permission to routinely fly within certain regions of controlled airspace, permission to fly over people in the event of a life safety incident, and you can request other special provisions to be named in your COA, depending on the specific needs of your operations.
So if you think you might regularly need to fly in controlled airspace or in other special scenarios that you might want to include in your COA application, obtaining a COA is probably a good idea.
How to Obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate
Let’s look individually at both the Part 107 certification process and the COA application process.
There are several requirements for obtaining a Remote Pilot Certificate, but the primary hurdle to obtaining a Remote Pilot Certificate is passing the Part 107 test.
As you probably know, we have our own online test prep course to help drone pilots get ready and pass—we’ve trained tens of thousands of pilots, and over 99% of our students who report back have passed on their first try. Learn more about the test and how we can help you pass here in our FAQ.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to prepare, and the FAA provides a list of free resources they recommend to help you get ready.
However you choose to study, most people allocate between fifteen and twenty hours of time to get ready for the test.
After you pass the test, you’ll receive your Remote Pilot Certificate, and you can start flying for your fire or police department as soon as you have official approval from within the department.
How to Obtain a COA
Now let’s look at how to go about getting a COA.
Before you can start filling out the COA application, you’ll have to do a few things.
First, you should buy the drone, or drones, that you plan to use. There are two reasons for this—one, you’ll need to provide detailed equipment specs and serial numbers in your COA application, and two, you’ll need to register your UAV with the FAA through the FAADroneZone portal.
Second, you need a letter from your City, County, or State Attorney’s office declaring that your police or fired department is in fact a public entity.
This public letter of declaration should be submitted by the attorney’s office and mailed directly to the FAA, naming you as a technical point of contact. After a couple of weeks, you should be given approval to apply for a COA.
Here’s an example from MAXSUR, a company that works primarily with law enforcement, of what that attorney’s letter to the FAA might look like.
Once you have access to the FAA’s online COA system, you can login and start your COA application.
Here is an overview of what the application covers:
- Where—You’ll need to cover where you’ll be conducting drone operations.
- UAV Specs—You’ll need to cover the full specs and performance characteristics of the drone you plan to use in your operations.
- Procedures—You’ll need to cover all of your police or fire department’s SOPs for drone use, especially when it comes to dealing with emergencies that might occur while flying.
- Pilots—You’ll need to detail the requirements your pilots have met to be qualified to conduct UAS operations. Although the FAA allows you to self-certify your pilots, you still need to provide documentation demonstrating that you have established a training program, and that your remote pilots have been adequately trained.
Quick note—when the FAA gives you permission to apply, they should also set you up with a point of contact. Make sure to be in touch with this person with any questions you might have.
The COA application process is long and involved, but the FAA is there to help guide you through it.
Another thing to note is that once you have a COA in place you can obtain an emergency COA for a special type of operation not covered under your existing one in as little as three hours. (These are meant to be used in situations where there is an extreme possibility of a loss of life.)
You can learn more about emergency COAs here on the FAA’s website.
You can also apply for an emergency waiver for special kinds of flying otherwise prohibited by the Part 107 rules, like flying above 400 ft or beyond visual line of sight, if you have a pilot on staff who has his or her Remote Pilot Certificate. If you take this route, your emergency waiver will be submitted through the FAA’s Special Governmental Interest, or SGI, process.
Learn more about the SGI process in this guide we created, and here on the FAA’s website.
Of course, no matter which option you choose, safe flying should always be the first priority. We wish you the best of luck as you work to incorporate drones into your police or fire department.