Licking County has been cleared for take-off. The county recently received FAA approval to use its drone, a DJI Phantom 2 Vision, for a variety of countywide projects, including document roadway problems, flood damage, village-owned drainage easement issues and general public improvements, proving that drones, often utilized for law enforcement, can be used for a number of purposes.
After receiving notification that FAA approval was required to fly, the county submitted the application in August 2015 and received authorization in March 2016.
"If trying to get the current authorizations in place, it will take at least six months and probably longer," said Jerry Newton, Licking County Planning & Development director.
Newton and two others in his office have gone through the training, certification, practical and FAA knowledge testing to fly a drone. The county has hired an intermittent, part-time private pilot, developed an operation manual and purchased a radio to communicate with any nearby airport or heliport. The county staff has also developed more files and paperwork after the approvals to ensure compliance with the conditions and limitations of the authorizations.
The FAA is still developing those requirements, which can cause confusion for counties entering the drone acquisition process.
"There are currently nearly 15,000 pending applications shown on the official FAA list. Just under 5,000 have been approved...The better option is to wait and stay involved in tracking the pending rules that are expected to provide reasonable [drone] provisions that are underway by the FAA," Newton said.
Counties looking to take flight with a drone must consider another key component: insurance. Licking County reached out to CORSA for liability coverage for the drone and pilot, which required a copy of the FAA authorization.
There have been new developments in the authorization process since Licking County acquired their authorization. It was recently announced that the FAA will now issue a Blanket Area Public Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA). This authorization, which may be granted in as little as 60 days, will allow small drones (under 55 pounds) to operate during the day nationwide, provided they remain in Class G airspace and specified distances from airports. Unlike a commercial use or 333 exemption blanket COA, operators will not necessarily be required to hold a pilot's certificate to fly public unmanned aircraft. Moreover, unlike past public use authorizations, the FAA will not require two separate applications for training and operations.
When asked for advice for other counties looking to procure a drone, Newton offered the following:
- Be very patient and wait. Getting FAA approval is a process.
- Know what you are getting into. The drone is not a toy. Think of a drone as a county vehicle.
- Get trained on the use of the drone and document it all.
- Involve CORSA early to know what will be expected for liability coverage.
Additionally, CORSA offers members sample policy/procedures for both law enforcement and non-law enforcement drone use