FAA Reauthorization Act provides new operational freedoms for public safety teams, says Fotokite

June 25, 2024

Background of tethered UAS regulations

The recent passage of the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act (FAA Reauthorization) of 2024 (H.R.3935) marks a milestone for firefighters, public safety, and law enforcement agencies using advanced drone technology, as reported by Fotokite.

This legislation builds on the category of Actively Tethered Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and grants public safety organizations greater operational flexibility.

Since the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act established the category of Actively Tethered UAS, public entities like professional firefighters and law enforcement have been allowed to operate these systems without needing remote piloting certifications or Certificates of Authorization (COA).

These systems were also exempt from airworthiness certification requirements.

However, volunteer firefighters were excluded from these operational freedoms, Fotokite noted.

Key updates in the 2024 FAA Reauthorization Act

On May 16, 2024, the updated FAA Reauthorization Act was signed into law, providing significant updates to the Actively Tethered UAS category, according to Fotokite.

This new law exempts public safety organizations from several regulatory requirements when operating Actively Tethered UAS compared to traditional piloted drones and passively tethered UAS.

Fotokite reports that public safety organizations can now operate Actively Tethered UAS in Zero-Grid Airspaces, including urban areas and near airports, without needing specific waivers and prior approval from the FAA.

Additionally, public safety personnel, including volunteer firefighters, are no longer required to hold a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate or obtain a COA for Actively Tethered UAS operations.

This reduces the administrative burden and operational barriers, enabling faster and more efficient deployment of these systems.

Expanded scope and safety features

The new law expands the scope of public safety organizations eligible to operate Actively Tethered UAS, including all public safety personnel, whether paid or volunteer, Fotokite highlighted.

This clarification is critical for the 65% of US firefighters who are volunteers.

Fotokite also noted that the law includes safety-oriented updates for Actively Tethered UAS.

Each system must be equipped with features to maintain flight control in case of power or control failure and initiate a controlled landing if the tether is severed.

The tether must remain physically taut and connected to a base station, providing continuous power and control to ensure safe operation and retrieval.

Operational requirements and advantages

Despite the greater operational freedoms, certain requirements must still be met, according to Fotokite.

Actively Tethered UAS must operate at or below 150 feet above ground level (AGL) within specific airspace classes and cannot be flown directly over individuals not involved in the operation.

Operators must maintain visual line of sight and yield to manned aircraft.

Fotokite outlined several advantages of Actively Tethered UAS for public safety missions, including enhanced safety, extended flight time, real-time situational awareness, and versatility.

These systems provide continuous power supply, reducing operational risks and extending flight durations, while real-time transmission of high-quality video aids incident commanders and first responders.

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