In the article “Eyes in the Sky” (Law Officer, January 2013, p. 28), author Gene Payson wrote: “A sUAS weighing less than 25 lbs. can be flown below 400 feet.” This is a complex and rapidly evolving area, and upon consultation, the author would like to clarify this statement. All small unmanned aircraft systems operated by law enforcement require a certificate of authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), regardless of vehicle size or altitude limitations.
A big thank you to Deputy Duane Tompkins of the Polk County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, who made the catch. Thank you also to Jerry LeMieux, PhD (Col, Ret., USAF), and Gene Payson for their help clarifying this issue. Deputy Tompkins writes:
“A COA allows law enforcement to fly any aircraft with certain restrictions. The 25 lbs. reference comes from the reauthorization bill which directs the FAA to make for an easier COA process for small unmanned aircraft systems in the weight range of 4.4–25 lbs. Note: This is a category, and not really a factor in the COA process other than designation and speed the paperwork gets processed.
“Theoretically, if a law enforcement agency could afford a Global Hawk jet, which weighs thousands of pounds, they could fly it with a COA in the national airspace. In fact, the largest civilian law enforcement agency in the nation fly’s the Predator aircraft: Customs and Border Protection has been flying them for years with the COA process.
“The FAA has several years before the process is streamlined to the point ‘directed’ by the reauthorization act, they only had to outline how they would accomplish it in 90 days. The actual process is probably a year or more away.
“The 400-feet designation is for AC for model aircraft only. Bottom line: Law enforcement must have a COA no matter what aircraft they fly or where the intended flight will take place.”
According to LeMieux, changes to these laws are expected soon. When in doubt, check with the FAA. A mistake by a public agency—even if small and inadvertent—could have lasting ramifications for everyone.
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