One of the most fascinating technological advances in recent memory has been the development of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), popularly called drones. (Note: Although the formal terminology is Unmanned Aircraft System Program, drones have no gender. Since I prefer the term “unstaffed” to “unmanned,” I am using the simple term “drone” in this column.)
No longer considered toys, drones rapidly are becoming useful tools in many applications, not just pizza delivery or aerial views of wedding ceremonies. They are tracking traditional migrations of animal herds, peak hour traffic patterns, and can operate in many types of environments that regular aircraft cannot. A drone program can provide operational capability, safety, and situational awareness for first responders, their partners, and the community. Mission types could be search and rescue, emergency management, flooding assessment, crash reconstruction, and hazardous materials responses, as well as other uses.
In the hands of a certified operator, a drone can be flown over a search and rescue scene, providing aerial data to workers on the ground, the number of vehicles involved, how far afield evidence is spread, the velocity of rapids in the case of a water rescue, where life safety equipment could enter the scene, and direct the movements of ground personnel. Such a tool can make emergency response more efficient and effective, saving valuable time when minutes count.
A proposed program was discussed first at the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee meeting in January 2018, the result of many months of staff discussion about the tool already used by public safety agencies in other localities, including the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. The Board later deferred action, to provide additional time to explore concerns about privacy and gain more community input. A Task Force was created, and multiple community meetings were held to display the types of drones to be used, a presentation about the program, and answer community questions. More than 100 comments, questions, and recommendations were received during the 30-day review and comment period. Significant revisions to the proposed program included community stakeholder representation for a proposed Steering Committee, a formal biennial program review and evaluation, enhanced transparency, reasonable precautions to ensure privacy of individuals, line of sight only operation, and flight restriction zones. FAA regulations prohibit hobbyists flying drones within several miles of most airports, which puts much of Fairfax County off-limits for drones, absent the formal permission granted to public safety agencies with certified programs.
On Tuesday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted the revised program, authorized staff to move forward with additional community outreach and education, and develop a website. A required FAA Certificate of Authority must be issued before any implementation, and each county agency wishing to operate a drone system is required to detail the intended purpose, mission types and scope, and obtain board approval. The cost of the initial program is anticipated to be less than $30,000 for the purchase of a half dozen drones and equipment, plus a $150 fee for FAA Part 107 examinations, per pilot. No additional positions are needed to implement the program. Data storage will be minimal, as there is no requirement to collect and retain data for most types of missions.