In the fight to make greater use of unmanned aircraft in civil airspace, which at times appears to be a bureaucratic war, we can’t even be as optimistic as Churchill after Britain’s 1942 victory over Nazi forces at El Alamein, Egypt. Not only are we not at the beginning of the end, we hardly seem to be close to the end of the beginning.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States are chomping at the bit to field UAVs, which the budget-squeezed see as low-cost options for adding surveillance and airborne patrol capability.
For its part, the FAA is holding tight on the reins and yanking them hard on occasion. It requires law agencies to obtain certificates of authorization for each individual proposed UAV operation. It also wants proof of airworthiness for the aircraft and skill for the operator. It is driven in part by concern for protecting manned aircraft, their occupants, and those on the ground from what some see as glorified, radio-control hot dogs.
Here’s the twist. Many airborne law enforcement units fly as "public use" operations. In the past, that has meant that, as public agencies, they weren’t required to have airworthiness certificates for their aircraft or even FAA licenses for their pilots. As far as they are concerned, technically all they need to put a UAV in civil airspace is an aircraft and a mission.
The FAA is having none of that, with some officials of the agency appearing unfamiliar, shall we say, with public-use rules.
Reasonable folks in the law enforcement community are willing to discuss the issue with the agency, but they’ve had no luck at that. In the meantime, one of the most beneficial applications of civil UAVs is forced to stay on the shelf.