As we’ve seen over the last few years, following Hurricanes, or during the wildfires that have swept through California, drones can be incredibly helpful in an emergency—drones allow you to fly into a collapsed building, off the side of a cliff, or over a smoldering fire to locate survivors after a disaster, so you can target your rescue efforts where they’re most needed.
Until recently, getting special permission to fly in restricted airspace, or in conditions generally prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules for sUAS, has been a real hurdle for using drones in emergencies. In scenarios that call for an immediate response, a 90-day wait is just too long (this is the amount of time the FAA says it could take to review and process decisions on waivers and airspace authorizations).
But for first responders and other emergency personnel, things may now be fast-tracked.
The FAA’s FAQ on waivers was recently updated to read:
First responders and others entities responding to emergency situations may be eligible for expedited approval through our Special Governmental Interest (SGI) process.
– FAA website (third paragraph down on the page)
[Hat tip to Ed O’Grady for calling this update to our attention. Thanks Ed!]
This new Special Governmental Interest (SGI) amendment process is outlined in FAA Order JO 7200.23A, and allows for expediting support of airspace authorization and Part 107 waiver requests in specific circumstances.
1). Who Is Eligible?
These types of UAS operations are eligible for the SGI process:
- Addendums to pre-existing COAs
- Waivers and authorizations to Part 107 operators
This means that any drone pilot making the request to have their application expedited must already be certified by the FAA to fly drones in the U.S.
This is no surprise, but it is worth emphasizing—if you haven’t already been certified to fly through a COA or Part 107 certification, you aren’t eligible for an expedited application because you’re simply not eligible to fly drones at all.
Here are some examples of response missions that may qualify for expedited support through this new process:
- Search and Rescue
- Law Enforcement
- Utility or Other Critical Infrastructure Restoration
- Incident Awareness and Analysis
- Damage Assessments Supporting Disaster Recovery Related Insurance Claims
- Media Coverage Providing Crucial Information to the Public
2) Which Applications May Be Expedited?
Not all of them, it’s important to note, especially when it comes to Part 107 waiver applications.
Here are the types of authorizations and waivers that are eligible for expedited review under the SGI process:
- Flying in airspace (including controlled airspace and disaster Temporary Flight Restrictions) and/or at altitudes not otherwise permitted
- Flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS)
- Flying at night
All other types of operations prohibited under the Part 107 rules (i.e., flights over people, from moving vehicles, etc.) are not eligible for this expedited process.
Derrick Ward of the Los Angeles Fire Department Doing a Press Demo
So how do you take advantage of the new SGI process?
All you have to do is fill out the Emergency Operation Request Form (MS Word) and send it to the FAA’s System Operations Support Center (SOSC) at email@example.com.
A Few Notes
You have to be a certified drone pilot to apply. As mentioned above, you must already be an existing Part 107 Remote Pilot with a current certificate OR you must have an existing Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). The FAA will not grant emergency approval for casual or recreational drone pilots.
Disaster flight coordination. If the proposed UAS flight is to be conducted within a disaster Temporary Flight Restriction, the FAA’s SOSC, as appropriate, may need to pre-coordinate the requested operation with a responsible Incident Commander or Unified Command (IC/UC) to ensure their activity will support or, at a minimum, not interfere with broader response and recovery efforts.
Once you submit the Emergency Operation Request Form, the FAA will then coordinate with the affected Air Traffic facilities to:
1. Review your proposed operation and determine whether it meets the necessary criteria for emergency approval.
2. Implement any necessary mitigations to minimize impact on other air traffic operations.
3. Contact you within one hour or sooner regarding the status of your request or to request additional information.
If approved, the FAA will add an amendment to your existing COA or Remote Pilot Certificate that authorizes you to fly under the approved conditions for the specified operation.
If denied, operators should NOT fly outside the provisions of their existing COA or part 107. Operators have the option to amend their requests.
Time matters in an emergency.
The primary takeaway from this guide is that you need to submit your Emergency Operation Request Form (MS Word) immediately to the FAA’s System Operations Support Center (SOSC) at firstname.lastname@example.org if you think you need special permission to fly in a disaster scenario. The sooner you submit, the sooner they can review.
Also, don’t waste your time (or theirs)—remember that only airspace authorizations and BVLOS waivers are available through this expedited process.