During an emergency, such as hurricane Harvey in Texas, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) puts Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR’s) in place that prohibit flights of drones (manned or unmanned aircraft) within the geographic boundaries designated in the TFR. Only specially authorized flights can take place within the area covered by the TFR, and these are generally limited to those in support of disaster response or recovery efforts under the direct control of the appropriate incident command. And make no mistake, neither the FAA nor governmental entities engaged in these missions will tolerate interference with emergency response.
Nonetheless, drones or small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or sUAS) can be excellent alternatives to helicopters or manned aircraft for all the obvious reasons: they can go places helicopters cannot and do so without — literally — creating waves or strong winds. So, if you or your company use a drone that you would like to put into service in an emergency, here are few things you should know.
- Must hold a current Part 107 Remote Pilot’s Certificate/UAS Rating. An FAA Order, JO 7200.23A, sets out the FAA’s policies for emergency UAS operations by civilians in support of government operations. It recognizes that there will be times when a significant government interest, such as homeland security, law enforcement, and emergency operations, requires enlisting auxiliary drones to assist with these governmental functions. In order to assist public safety, the operator of the drone must be operating under a Certificate of Authorization (“COA”) or in compliance with Part 107. For purposes of this discussion, those with COA’s are generally public safety or other governmental units, like police or fire departments from other jurisdictions. Everyone else must be operating under Part 107, which among other things, prohibits operation of a small UAS without having a current remote pilot’s certificate. A person wishing to be ready to offer assistance in these situations, should register the aircraft and obtain a remote pilot’s certificate.
- Special Governmental Interest (SGI) Addendum. Once a TFR is in place, not even public safety drones can fly without permission from the FAA. That permission is granted in what was formerly known as an “Emergency COA,” but which is now called a “Special Government Interest (SGI) Addendum.” Requests to fly drones in an emergency response situation are made to the System Operations Support Center (SOSC), a component of System Operations Security, at (202) 267-8276, and a backup request should be sent to the SOSC via email at 9-ator-hqsosc@ faa.gov. Once a request is received, the SOSC will review the proposed operation, decide if the request meets all the SGI criteria, and determine what Part 107 waivers or amendments to COA’s are needed —night operations, altitudes, airspace, etc. This is not a rubber stamp approval. The operator must supply the exact latitude and longitudes for each area to be flown. The person seeking the SGI addendum must satisfy the SOSC that even though the operation may deviate from certain rules (g., above 400 feet), the operator has proposed mitigations that provide an equivalent level of safety as would be obtained if the rule were followed.
One of the key SGI criteria is that the proponent must secure support from a governmental entity participating in the response, relief, or recovery effort, and any flights must be under the direction of the appropriate incident command (IC) or unified command (UC). As a practical matter, a civilian wishing to help should contact the IC or UC, who will then make application with SOSC or provide the necessary authorizations for doing so. The identity of the IC or UC will likely be included in the TFR covering the affected area. The TFR issued in connection with Hurricane Harvey, for example, directed UAS operators to the Texas Air Operations Center.
SGI Addendums are not just for operating while a TFR is in place. They are for getting authorization to fly “outside the rules” in a true emergency, for example night time search and rescue operations using thermal sensors. In those situations, contacting “incident command” may be quite informal and involve simply walking up to the person in charge.
- Consider contracting with public safety. Companies with air assets, manned or unmanned, who anticipate offering these aircraft for emergency use on a regular basis often enter into contracts with their local governments to spell out what equipment or services will or will not be provided, to clarify liability issues, and establish protocols for mustering the assets. Typically, the contract is a lease of the aircraft and pilots retained directly by the public safety entity. Utility and media companies already do this with manned aircraft and will likely do the same with their unmanned assets. These formal arrangements are important. When the rescue is successful, with no significant injury or loss, all is well. But if the mission is not successful, or if people or property are damaged, having a written document addressing risk and expectations can reduce the likelihood of litigation. Nothing ages faster than gratitude.