Just days after an I-Team 8 investigation raised questions about new state and federal regulations restricting drones, Rushville, Indiana’s police department is grounding its drone and temporarily suspending its use until it becomes FAA compliant.
Chief Craig Tucker said the day after an I-Team 8 report aired last week, he received an email from the FAA’s Chicago field office. That email led to additional phone calls about whether the department’s drone met FAA regulations, Tucker said. The department had been in the process of applying for a COA or certificate of authorization from the FAA — but had not completed it.
“My understanding in talking to the FAA last week is that we are the only agency in the state to apply for a COA,” Tucker said. When asked what he gleaned from that, he said: “That there is a lot of confusion over what the rules and regulations are I would say.”
Tuesday night, the city council approved a motion that will allow the city’s drone consultant Doug Anderson to continue his pursuit of a COA for the city’s DJI Phantom drone. As Anderson pointed out, the city may need several COAs if it wants the drone to be able to cover the entire county. He’s working on approving a series of maps and grids he’ll turn over to the federal agency.
“It’s a very tedious process,” Anderson told I-Team 8, noting that it could take the FAA 60 days to reply.
So far, Tucker says the police department had used its drone sparingly – once to take aerial photos of a fatal DUI crash in Shelby County, and in other instances to survey storm damage or help find missing persons.
“(The FAA) didn’t say it was a must that we had to stop. It was just their recommendation,” Tucker said. “Since the story aired, we another agency call and ask for help with locating a missing person. We couldn’t do it. It’s unfortunate, and hopefully the process moves fast.
“We are going to play it safe and make sure we are in compliance with whatever the rules and regulations are,” Tucker said.
The issue is air safety. In a lengthy response to I-Team 8′s questions, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory told I-team 8 that “we want people to fly safely. Any purpose other than for hobby or recreation, such as operating an unmanned aircraft in connection with a business, is subject to FAA regulations and needs agency approval.”
She continued, saying “The FAA has a process in place through which the agency can issue an emergency COA for natural disasters and search-and-rescue, including wildfire spotting, sometimes in a matter of hours.”
Cory also noted that the agency “faces many challenges” in its attempt to regulate the nation’s airspace. Congress has tasked the FAA with creating a comprehensive plan for unmanned aerial systems (or drones) by September 30, 2015. A proposed rule for small drones is being drafted and will be issued for public comment this year, Cory claimed. Rules and regulations for so-called hobbyists have been introduced — urging them to notify airports if they enter their airspace, keep drones below a 400 foot ceiling and within line of sight.
But it’s the confusion between the current rules, the proposed rules and ongoing litigation against the FAA that’s led some agencies to insist they are within their rights to fly a drone. Adding to that, Indiana became one of five states to pass a drone law. In this state, that means law enforcement agencies are required to have a search warrant before using a drone with some exceptions.
It’s unclear if Rushville’s self-imposed suspension will change the behaviors or policies of other departments. So far, they appear to be undeterred.
Shelby County Deputy Prosecutor Ed Zych told I-Team 8 by email: “The use of drones by law enforcement appears to be in a gray area meaning that regulations for law enforcement use have not yet been promulgated that I know of by the FAA. As such, a COA is not needed for law enforcement purposes.”
Tucker says he wants to keep the program in place, which is why he wants to lay low for now.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com