by Brittan Duncan with Robin Murphy
Here are our notes on the recommended rules, which are currently open for public comment and are not in force, and how they might impact public agencies, especially fire rescue. Current operations should still be run under the existing COA process for public agencies. Also, even though the rules are open for public comments for 60 days, that doesn’t mean the rules will be made official in 60 days or that these will indeed be the final rules.
In the future, COAs may not be necessary for flight, as the rules would let agencies pick and choose whether to fly as a civil operation or as a public entity.
If you are flying in Class G and under 500 feet AGL with a registered vehicle less than 55 pounds and a top speed of less than 100mph with a pilot who has passed the proposed UAS ground school (“aeronautical knowledge test”), you won’t need a COA. You will still have to comply with NOTAMs, TFRs, see-and-avoid rules, and rules for flying over people. Note: you will also need to consider any local regulations on privacy, etc. Remember, just because the FAA says you can fly without a COA in an area, it doesn’t mean your constituency finds it acceptable.
If you are flying in other classes of airspace, you have work with the local ATC. Exactly how this happens is unclear and we suspect that in practice many ATCs will say “get a COA” and in some of those cases, you may still have to have to pilot with a civilian pilot’s license. Hopefully not, but that’s still unclear. It would be the worst case scenario, though, which is manageable. This gives more flexibility for emergency situations where you need to fly in a tower controlled area but hadn’t made prior arrangements with the ATC- they can say “ok, you can fly this one time but let’s work out a better plan after the emergency is over.” Of course, the ATC can also say “no.”
You can fly over people who are covered, such as those in their houses in a neighborhood or in their cars in traffic, but you are responsible for mitigation, as in: your agency is liable. You would be allowed to fly over uncovered people only if they are directly participating in the operation (like other fire fighters and police) and have received a briefing. However, as a public agency, that may not be realistic except during training or highly localized flights during an incident where the site was cordoned off. Fortunately, it looks like agencies will have some discretion in how they alert civilians. Informing residents that you are flying in their area to search for a person, asking people to stay indoors temporarily, posting signage, etc., may be sufficient. Your agency probably already has SOP for various activities and those can be expanded to handle SUAS. Note that even if your agency feels it is acting within its bounds, SUAS make some people very antsy and thus anything you can do to proactively reduce misperceptions will probably benefit your agency in the long run.
You still have to maintain line of sight. Still no looking through binoculars or cameras. This applies to both the operator and the visual observer, who must both be able to see the vehicle at any time and should be able to tell which direction it is facing, as well as direction of flight.
You can have a mobile operation with a visual observer on a moving boat, but not a moving car. This is great news for agencies who want to map rivers or wetlands, “meh” for everyone else.
You can have multiple UAS in the same airspace, but each requires their own pilot and visual observer. We are looking forward to this as we see a need in wilderness search and rescue for a fixed-wing to conduct a thorough survey at a higher altitude while a rotor-craft is directed to the high probability spots for a missing person.
You can eliminate the separate visual observer if the pilot flies “heads up” and always keeps eyes on the UAS. Note: This is only allowed for flights in which you are not using any first person view- you can’t “fly the camera” as the pilot without a visual observer. Our studies with SUAS and decades of studies in manned aviation suggest a single person switching between first person view and external views can lead to errors, so although it adds manpower (sigh) we agree with this.
When you want to use first person view, in conjunction with a visual observer, the visual observer is not allowed to manipulate any flight controls, look through the camera to pan/tilt/zoom in on an object, or initiate any autonomy (e.g., select waypoints). Your mission specialist (for us, there’s usually a responder saying “no, this is what I want to look at”) can’t be your visual observer. This is important to note in systems that require multiple interfaces, such as a hand controller and a computer. Another option is to fund our research in multi-modal user interfaces that don’t overwhelm the pilot and don’t require them to look at a screen!
You have to have 5 minutes of reserve power to insure a return to home and controlled landing. Note: in practice, you also want to keep track of the distance to home/time to home. We think the real point is always being able to return home unless there is a catastrophic failure of the SUAS. 5 minutes may be excessive for small areas where the SUAS can return safely in less than 2 minutes, but no one has ever been sad to have too much fuel.
You can’t fly at night. It looks like you will have to go through the COA process for this. The SUAS rules document actually says “The FAA welcomes public comments with suggestions on how to effectively mitigate the risk of operations of small unmanned aircraft during low-light or nighttime operations.” Which sounds like “if you’ve got any ideas, let us know, because we didn’t come up with anything that could be a hard and fast rule.”