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FAA Reauthorisation: Tethered UAS Operational Freedom

by IvyFPS
FAA Reauthorisation Tethered UAS Operational Freedom

New FAA Reauthorization Act Unlocks Operational Freedom for Public Safety Teams with Actively Tethered UAS

Introduction

The recent passage of the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act (FAA Reauthorization) of 2024 (H.R.3935) marks a significant milestone for firefighters, public safety, and law enforcement agencies seeking to leverage cutting-edge drone technology. This landmark legislation builds upon a specific category of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) known as “Actively Tethered UAS,” and grants public safety organizations unprecedented operational flexibility. This white paper will outline the background of this UAS category, key provisions of the new law, highlight the advantages of Actively Tethered UAS, and explore some implications for public safety missions.

FAA Reauthorisation Tethered UAS Operational Freedom

Background

2018’s FAA Reauthorization Act established a new category of drone: Actively Tethered Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Ever since that law passed, the FAA has permitted increased operational freedoms to Public entities (including professional firefighters and law enforcement) utilizing this newly defined category of UAS. Namely, those Public entities have been permitted to operate Actively Tethered UAS in their operations without the requirement to undergo remote piloting certifications (commonly referred to as Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule Part 107 license) or obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA).

Actively Tethered UAS were also made exempt from airworthiness certification requirements. Lawmakers justified these increased operational freedoms based on the advantages that Actively Tethered UAS can bring to operators in terms of safety, redundancy, and autonomy in comparison to traditional piloted unmanned aerial systems. Meanwhile, Part 107 and COA requirements have remained in place for Public entities operating all other categories of UAS. Operators of Actively Tethered UAS, however, were still subject to the restrictions of flight operations within the US’ airspaces just like traditional piloted drones. These restrictions can be summarized in the following points:

  • ‘Public’ entities, as interpreted by the FAA, explicitly does not include Volunteer Firefighters, which make up 65% of the USA’s total firefighters according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. This resulted in professional firefighters and volunteer firefighters having to meet different regulatory requirements in order to harness the advantages of Actively Tethered UAS.
  • Maximum operating altitude Above Ground Level (AGL) for Actively Tethered UAS operations was still limited to the AGL ceilings depicted in the UAS Facility Maps for piloted drones, which limit emergency response teams from operating in urban areas and near airports, even for life-saving missions, unless they have specific authorizations to do so beforehand.

The operational freedoms to public operators and the restrictions mentioned above were reinforced in the FAA’s Advisory Circular in December 2022 and helped to clarify any uncertainties that potential operators, particularly volunteer firefighters, had surrounding this new category of UAS.

FAA Reauthorisation Tethered UAS Operational Freedom

In the nearly six years since the last FAA Reauthorization, the public safety sector has seen hundreds of thousands of missions using Actively Tethered UAS. They have been operated successfully for incident management, structure fires, wildfires, search and rescue operations, swift-water rescues, law enforcement missions, building collapses, large event security, traffic control, training exercises, and many more high impact missions serving communities across the United States. Through these missions’ successes and learnings from this relatively new UAS category, both lawmakers in Congress and the FAA carefully considered and implemented further improvements to the operational freedoms granted to public safety operators utilizing Actively Tethered UAS.

On May 16, 2024, the recent FAA Reauthorization was signed into law with significant updates to the Actively Tethered UAS category. Below we outline the key updates and how they positively impact public safety operations.

Three Key Provisions of the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act of 2024

1) Crucially, the new law exempts public safety organizations from several regulatory requirements when operating Actively Tethered UAS compared to traditional piloted drones and passively tethered UAS. These exemptions include:

  • Operation in Zero-Grid Airspaces: Public safety organizations may now operate Actively Tethered UAS in areas where traditional drones can not be flown without specific waivers and prior approval from the FAA. This includes urban areas and near airports, wherever public safety operations are needed.
  • No Remote Pilot Certification: Public safety personnel, including all volunteer firefighters, are not required to hold a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate to operate an Actively Tethered UAS.
  • No Certificate of Authorization (COA): Public safety organizations, including volunteer fire departments, are not required to obtain a COA for Actively Tethered UAS operations. These exemptions significantly reduce the administrative burden and operational barriers for public safety agencies, enabling faster and more efficient deployment of this force-multiplying UAS category.

2) Additionally, the new law expands the scope of public safety organizations which may operate Actively Tethered UAS within the regulatory advantages listed above by defining “Public Safety Organizations”. Whereas in previous law, only professional public operators could access Actively Tethered UAS with the regulatory advantages above, the new definition clarifies that all public safety personnel, whether paid or volunteer, meet the qualification of operating an Actively

The Fotokite Sigma: The Leading Actively Tethered UAS Solution

The Fotokite Sigma is an Actively Tethered UAS that meets the requirements of the new law and has been specifically built for public safety teams and missions. The system has been used by public safety organizations across six continents to enhance situational awareness, improve decision-making, and help first responders save lives and stay safe.

Conclusion

The Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act of 2024 represents a significant step forward for public safety agencies seeking to leverage drone technology. By granting greater operational freedom and reducing regulatory barriers, the new law empowers public safety organizations to utilize Actively Tethered UAS more effectively in their missions. As these systems continue to evolve and mature, they are poised to play an increasingly important role in enhancing public safety and protecting communities across the nation.

For more information on FAA Reauthorisation: Tethered UAS Operational Freedom, visit www.fotokite.com



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