As drone technology becomes more important to commercial industries, owners of drone-based businesses continue to find themselves at odds with government-sanctioned restrictions on drone flight. It can be argued that legislation is playing catch-up with the rapid evolution of drone technology and an ever-expanding market for drone-based services. What options do these business owners have to make sure that they are operating legally?
In this article, we present the two best license types that drone business owners can apply for. Between getting a Part 107 license and a COA from the FAA, which one is ideal for your business? Read on and find out.
What is a Part 107 license?
Most drone pilots and drone-based business owners are probably familiar with the FAA’s Part 107 rules for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This set of rules provides a legislative framework for commercial drone operations. Under the Part 107 rules, any drone pilot involved in commercial operations needs to secure a Part 107 drone pilot license.
A major step in the process of getting this drone license is passing a 60-item multiple choice knowledge test which covers a wide range of topics related to drone flight. These topics go beyond common knowledge, requiring commercial drone pilots to be familiar with meteorological conditions, factors affecting drone flight performance, classifications of restricted airspace, radio communication standards, how to read sectional charts, and how to do drone maintenance and troubleshooting. Taking the knowledge test costs $150.
Upon passing the test, a drone pilot needs to undergo a background check by the TSA before being issues the license. A remote pilot certificate or drone pilot license is valid for 2 years, after which the drone pilot needs to take and pass a recurrent knowledge test to renew the license.
What are the restrictions of having a Part 107 license?
A condition of being an FAA-licensed drone pilot is that you must abide by the rules and restrictions specified under Part 107. The more relevant restrictions are as follows:
- The drone must weigh between 0.55 and 55 lbs. and must be registered with the FAA
- The drone must remain within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilot at all times
- The drone can only be operated during daylight. Flight during twilight (30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset) will be allowed with appropriate anti-collision lighting.
- The drone cannot fly over people who are not participating in the activity
- The drone cannot be operated from inside a moving vehicle.
- The drone can only in Class G airspace. It is possible to fly in restricted airspace (Class B, C, D, and E) if the appropriate air traffic control (ATC) can be secured.
- The drone can only fly to a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground, except when flying within 400 feet of a structure.
- The drone may only have a maximum groundspeed of 100 mph.
There are a couple of statements that define the finer points of these rules, but the list above is a very good summary of the conditions set forth by Part 107. It is a very comprehensive set of rules that has been the subject of scrutiny of drone business owners ever since the Part 107 rules were enacted.
Several people and agencies have argued that these restrictions severely restrict the capabilities of commercial drone pilots to serve the needs of their clients. This claim runs contrary to the mandate of the FAA to promote and foster the development of the commercial drone industry.
Can these rules be waived under Part 107?
In case commercial drone pilots must do a job that will violate one of the Part 107 restrictions, a stop-gap solution is to apply for a waiver for that particular restriction. This involves a long process that includes the pilot submitting a detailed account of the planned activity with risk identification and plans to reduce these risks. The FAA will then review the applications – a step which can take several weeks or months – before the waiver can be granted. This waiver will only apply to the activity described in the application.
While the provision for granting waivers has been very useful for drone businesses for the past few years, it has not proven to be applicable to all scenarios. The process can take very long, which means that commercial drone pilots cannot serve a client immediately if the job requires a waiver. More than 90% of the waivers granted by the FAA were for nighttime flights, a figure which does not bode well for drone pilots who need to fly a drone over crowds or from a moving vehicle.
The FAA has granted more than 2000 waivers since the Part 107 restrictions were put in place. They have probably rejected a good number of applications, so the number of drone pilots applying for waivers is probably much higher than 2000. This implies that there are so many potential commercial drone applications that have been severely restricted by the Part 107 rules.
What is FAA COA?
Before the Part 107 rules were set in place, the only options for drone pilots to fly legally were either to get a Section 333 exemption or to get a COA from the FAA. Despite Part 107 being heavily promoted, there is still a persisting impression that getting a COA is better and less restrictive. Why does the COA have such a reputation?
A Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) is an authorization issued by the Air Traffic Organization to a drone operator for a specific activity. An operator or organization that has been issued a COA can routinely fly under conditions that are otherwise restricted by the Part 107 rules. This means that a COA holder can have the privilege of flying in applicable regions of controlled airspace, during nighttime, or over crowds of people.
Keep note that the conditions under which operators can fly their drones are subject to the special provisions identified in the COA. Even an operator with a “Blanket COA” needs to fly their drones within visual line of sight and must use a drone that is registered with the FAA.
The major benefit of having a COA is the increased flexibility for the drone operator. No longer does a drone operator need to apply for a separate waiver for every activity that will violate the provisions of the Part 107 rules. It allows drone operators to react quickly to dynamic situations and demands as needed by the drone-based service that they are offering.
An organization that is granted a COA is also given the privilege to self-certify its own drone pilots. This means that the organization does not need to have every single pilot take the Part 107 knowledge test. Aside from saving on the time spent for these pilots to undergo training and certification, an organization with a COA also saves on the $150 testing fee for each of their drone pilots.
Types of COAs
There are 3 major types of COAs being granted by the Air Traffic Organization:
1. Blanket COA
A Blanket COA allows a drone operator to fly in across vast regions of airspace. However, the operator is still subject to a few restrictions such as maintaining visual line of sight and not being able to fly within 5 nautical miles of public-use airports. The Blanket COA is not location-bound and can be applied outside of the operator’s jurisdiction. Outside of the provisions named under the Blanket COA, the operator will need to apply for a separate COA.
2. Jurisdictional COA
A Jurisdictional COA allows an operator to fly within a certain area or jurisdiction with minimal restrictions. Getting a Jurisdictional COA typically requires having a Blanket COA first, although it is not unheard of for organizations to bypass the Blanket COA step. The usual benefits of having a Jurisdictional COA include being able to fly over 400 feet AGL, during night, and within restricted airspace.
3. Emergency COA
Emergency COAs are typically granted to emergency service organizations or local government units that have already been granted a Blanket or Jurisdictional COA. They are applicable if the operator needs to fly a drone within certain conditions that are not covered by the existing COAs. As the name implies, an Emergency COA can only be invoked in an emergency event. Due to the nature of their use, Emergency COAs are usually requested and issued on short notice. The FAA has been known to revert to an Emergency COA application in as little as 3 hours.
Is it harder to get an FAA COA?
It is worth noting at this point that COAs are NOT for everyone. There are certain conditions that an organization must meet before being granted a COA. The approval is longer and more demanding. It also does not make the organization immune to liability, in case any drone operation goes awry.
1. Only for selected organization types
The first thing that a drone operator needs to know about COAs is that they are only granted to government agencies. In fact, a COA is such a special document that it is only granted to organizations that have specific functions. These organizations typically include first responders, firefighters, local law enforcement, public schools, and local municipalities. Due to the nature of the work of these organizations, they may need to operate a drone at night or in restricted airspace.
2. More requirements
Even for an organization geared towards public safety, the process of applying for a COA can be long and tedious. The process starts with the organization or operator sending a declaration letter to the FAA, formally stating what the agency does and justifying how its objectives fall under the statute of public drone use. If the FAA approves this declaration letter, the organization is then given access to the COA portal to file the formal COA application.
Before you can file the application, you will need to buy the drones that the organization will be using. The type of drone and its features will need to be specified in the application and will be one of the factors that the FAA will consider for approval.
You will then have to provide the details of your proposed operations: where it will happen, the pilots who will fly the drones, the objectives of your mission, and the procedures that you will be following.
Since the COA gives the privilege for the organization to self-certify its pilots, the organization must come up with a comprehensive and systematic training program. Similar to applying for a Part 107 waiver, the organization must also identify the risks associated with their operations and come up with mitigating measures for these risks.
3. Longer review process
Since the application for a COA includes a lot of details, the review process will probably also be a lot longer. The operator or organization is also expected to be available should the FAA need additional detail or clarifications to the details that have already been provided. According to the experience of organizations who have been granted COAs, the approval process can take between 60 to 120 days.
4. Monthly FAA reporting
One of the major requirements enforced by the FAA for those with granted COAs is for the operator or organization to provide monthly operational reports. This report is required regardless of which airspace class an operator is flying their drone. An operator even needs to provide this report even for months they did not fly their drone.
A monthly operations reports includes details on the name of the operator, the drone model used, the locations where the operator flew the drone, the number of flights and total flight hours, or if the drone experienced any damage or malfunctions. It does not sound like it’s a lot of work, but it can easily multiply for organizations that maintain multiple drones and employ multiple drone pilots.
Despite the FAA’s approval of an organization’s drone operations via the COA, it does not render the organization immune from any liabilities caused by drone flight. This means that the operator will bear the full brunt of any property damage or personal injury that can be the result of a drone-based accident, pilot error, or equipment failure.
The muddled definition of what a “public air operation” can also be problematic for agencies that have been granted a COA. There is a large possibility that not all drone operations carried out by a public agency falls under the umbrella of a public air operation, which means that they will not always be covered by the COA. Moreover, a self-certified pilot of the agency can be accused of flying without a license if they are found to be operating a drone outside the scope of a public air operation.
Which one should I get?
Both the Part 107 drone pilot license and the FAA COA have their own advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the circumstance of your drone operations, one option may be more attractive than the other. Choosing which certification works best for you will require a long and detailed look into how, when, and where you operate your drones.
By outlining the individual scopes of a Part 107 license and the FAA COA, the message we are trying to get across is that an FAA COA is not the be-all end-all solution that it is being perceived to be. Aside from being inappropriate for many commercial operations, there are various legal considerations that make the COA insufficient in ensuring that all drone operations will be done according to government-mandated restrictions.
If your agency falls under the qualifications of being granted an FAA COA, we recommend getting both the COA and the Part 107 license. In fact, the shorter process of getting a Part 107 license means you will likely secure it first before you are granted a COA. Having both licenses should ensure that you are flying legally under all possible scenarios.
The FAA COA is a relic of an older practice from before the Part 107 rules were developed. In many ways, Part 107 has implemented better safety measures by requiring that all drone pilots adhere to a standard level of knowledge on drone operations. All things considered, the COA is merely an older method to secure of certain flight restrictions – a provision that has already been built-in into the Part 107 rules.
If the FAA can make revisions to the Part 107 restrictions that will allow drone businesses to operate with more flexibility, then we can see a future where Blanket COAs will no longer be necessary. It is easy enough to see that the Part 107 rules will be FAA’s main method of regulating drone operations moving forward. This means that it will be unwise for agencies and operators to completely ignore Part 107 certification in favor of FAA COAs.
Moreover, any organization taking part in commercial or public-use drone operations will stand to benefit from having their drone pilots undergo the proper certification process as required by the Part 107 rules. Although the knowledge needed to get a Part 107 drone license is by no means complete, the knowledge required to get certified will still form a solid foundation through which more specialized expertise can be built upon.
It is perfectly understandable how having numerous options for certification of drone operations can lead to ambiguity. Right now, commercial and public-use drone operators have the option of getting a Section 333 exemption, an FAA COA, or a Part 107 drone license. Of course, the circumstances applicable for each kind of certification vary. However, there are still numerous overlapping areas that can make navigating these certifications quite tricky.
Public organizations nowadays still make wide use of COAs that allow for drone operations in otherwise restricted conditions. However, it is not hard to imagine how the provisions of getting a COA can be eventually integrated into the Part 107 certification and waiver application process. Among the many benefits of Part 107 is its requirement for drone pilots to pass a standardized knowledge test, ensuring that they know how to properly and safely conduct drone operations.
At this point, it is a wise move for organizations to apply for both a Part 107 drone license and an FAA COA. This provides a more comprehensive legal coverage for all their activities and keeps them ready for future legislation changes that appear to be more geared towards developing Part 107.