Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Big FAA announcement means quicker access to drones for law enforcement, "streamlined" authorization

Law enforcement agencies will be able to get drones off the ground more quickly, and also will be able to use larger drones, the Federal Aviation Administration announced yesterday.

A news release from the FAA yesterday said that those agencies will be able to enter into a two-step path to authorization, and thus speeding up the process for law enforcement to deploy drones.

"Initially, law enforcement organizations will receive a COA (Certificate of Authorization) for training and performance evaluation," the FAA said. "When the organization has shown proficiency in flying its UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), it will receive an operational COA."

A COA provides the agency with the authorization to fly drones in the national airspace. Currently it's the only way that a government agency can legally fly a drone, which the FAA calls a UAS, and the application process isn't open to commercial industry or private individuals.

The announcement doesn't specify what the requirements are for a law enforcement agency to show proficiency, and doesn't detail the differences between the two types of authorizations. But it does indicate that the FAA is following up on its federal obligation to expedite drone authorizatio

Additionally, the size limit of the drones available to law enforcement has been increased from 4.4 pounds to 25 pounds.

It's important to note the both the two-tiered COA system and the increase in the weight limit only apply to law enforcement agencies. However, there are a few changes the FAA is making that might benefit government agencies not involved in law enforcement.

Agencies, law enforcement or not, will also be able to fly dones for a longer period of time. Previously, a COA would be valid for a year. The new statement says that that time frame is now extended for two years. That means agencies will have to renew their drone authorizations less frequently.

The FAA also says it has a new online application process and a way of fast-tracking drone authorization for emergencies:

"The agency also developed an automated, web-based process to streamline steps and ensure a COA application is complete and ready for review. The agency already has expedited procedures in place to grant one-time COAs for time-sensitive emergency missions such as disaster relief and humanitarian efforts."

This may not mean much for drone journalism, unless that drone journalism is being pursued by a journalism school at a public university. But the FAA does leave the commercial drone industry, drone journalism included, with this tidbit:

"And later this year, the FAA expects to release a proposed rule that will establish policies, procedures and standards for a wide spectrum of users in the small UAS community. This class of UAS will likely experience the greatest near-term growth in civil and commercial operations because of their versatility and relatively low initial cost and operating expenses."