Is a Public COA The Right Compliance Strategy for Your Agency?

If your agency is implementing a drone program, should you use Part 107, Public COA or both?  It’s tempting to look at the Public COA process as a silver bullet to potentially avoid some of the limitations of Part 107 which without waivers does not meet the needs of most Public Safety agencies.  Essentially, 107 was designed for Commercial operators and was applied to Public Safety. It’s a powerful tool that provides agencies a lot of privileges to specify their operations, but with those privileges come additional responsibilities and challenges.

Let’s start at the beginning: What is a Public COA anyway?

Here’s the 50,000’ view: A Public Certificate of Authorization (COA) is an agreement between your municipality and the FAA that allows your agency to conduct Public Aircraft Operations which are flights conducted as a “governmental function” with limited oversight from the FAA. Essentially, the COA process shifts the burden of oversight from the FAA to your agency.

The Public COA process isn’t anything new. It was created to support pubic aircraft operations long before drones were widely available. Agencies like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have been flying their fleet of 59 manned aircraft under a COA since the mid ‘90s. The FAA provides all the specifics on the Public Aircraft Process in Advisory Circular 001.1a

Sounds complicated. Why would an agency want one?

It’s no secret that Part 107 operations are restrictive. Often, Part 107 seems like a list of
“can’t(s)” – Can’t fly at night. Can’t fly over people. Can’t fly beyond line of sight… and the list goes on.  Remember that point about the shift of oversight burden from the FAA to the agency? Public COA gives agencies a wide birth to conduct operations often including allowances to fly at night and over people in emergency situations by default. Some Public COAs allow agencies to specify their own training standards and might not require a UAS pilot acting under the privileges of a COA to possess a current Part 107 Airman’s Certificate.

Tempting, but what’s the catch?

Not all Public Safety operations are considered a “governmental function” as defined by 49USC. I’ll save you the legalese here, but simply being a public agency does not mean that every mission you fly is a governmental function by default. The FAA actually released an interpretation memo to this effect a few years back. Filming community events, preplanning, or shooting progress photos for Public Works all fall outside the privileges a Public COA provides.

The compliance burden is also greater with Public COA. You’ll be required to submit monthly reports of every flight that took place including every takeoff and landing. Not only that, but the FAA  expects you to submit a report even if you did not fly that month, indicating that no operations were conducted.

So, what’s the bottom line?

While there’s no one size fits all solution, we recommend that most agencies have their pilots trained and certified under Part 107, with a Public COA to fill in the gaps left by the Part 107 regulations. It might be more paperwork at the front end, but ultimately the pilot can choose which compliance procedure, either Part 107 or Public COA best meets the needs of the mission at hand. This gives your pilots more options to complete the mission safely without running afoul of the law.