Frequently Asked Questions
The Larimer County Unmanned Aircraft System (LCUAS) Team officially launched a county-wide program on July 1, 2017. Unmanned Aircraft Systems, commonly known as UAS or drones, can provide significant benefits to public safety efforts by offering an aerial perspective. The LCUAS team worked together for nearly three years to obtain FAA certifications, determine best practices, develop shared Operational Guidelines, and conduct training. Partner agencies continue to train together, share knowledge and information, and provide mutual support to serve the safety needs of Larimer County residents.
BASIC PROGRAM INFORMATION
Which agencies are using the drones? How do they work together?
The LCUAS Team consists of law enforcement, fire, and emergency services agencies in Larimer County. The agencies currently involved are Poudre Fire Authority, Loveland Fire Rescue Authority, Larimer County Sheriff’s Office (including Larimer County Search and Rescue), Fort Collins Police Services, Loveland Police Department, and the Colorado State University Police Department. This group uses the terms Unmanned Aircraft System, or UAS. This includes a UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, a ground-based controller and communication between the two. However, UAV is synonymous with “drone,” a widely-used term in the public that’s understood and accepted to mean a non-military unmanned aerial vehicle.
How do your agencies use the drones? What are some examples of situations where they are used?
An unmanned aircraft is simply another tool in our toolbox. It is most useful in situations where public safety operations can be made safer and more efficient by its implementation. In traffic crashes, a UAS decreases the time needed to measure the roadway. This decreases the time the roadway is closed, the amount of time officers need to be exposed to roadway hazards, and the overtime/economic costs of closing the roadway. UAS can easily be deployed, without risking the safety of first responders, to inaccessible and dangerous areas for situational awareness and incident command planning. This can include large structure fires, wild land fires, search and rescue efforts (mountains, cliffs, water recovery), natural disaster response and hazardous materials incidents.
How many drones are being used among the agencies now?
As of February 1, 2018, the Larimer County UAS Teams have a total of seven operational drones.
Are there plans to add to that number in the future and, if so, what would prompt future purchases? Who would buy them?
In the future, there may be the opportunity for the team to jointly own equipment. Each agency would be responsible for the purchase of any additional equipment. Unmanned aircraft systems vary significantly in their features and functionality. For example, future purchases could be prompted by the need to fly in higher winds, the need to fly in smaller indoor spaces, the need for better night vision, and more.
Can you describe the drones?
Brand: DJI Inspires
Weight: Approximately 7 pounds, depending upon battery and camera size/weight
Imaging features: Live stream video and capture of video and photos.
Cost: Approximately $3500-$4500, depending on accessories. They are paid for by each agency.
Noise level: Our drones make a sound like that of a fan running. How loud it is at any given moment depends upon the individual equipment and whether or not it is under load (accelerating or lifting off). They are definitely not silent, as is sometimes common public perception.
POLICIES, PROCEDURES & TRAINING
Is there a strategy for each flight or do you just send it up?
There is a strategy for each flight. Each flight is precipitated by an assessment of the need, utility and effectiveness of a UAS by the incident commander and the Pilot In Charge. The PIC then conducts a comprehensive pre-flight assessment and checklist. Preparation for each mission includes: An airspace review, weather review, risk assessment, issuance of a NOTAM (if required), safety briefing and pre-flight aircraft/communications check.
What policies, procedures, or guidelines pertain to use of these drones?
Unmanned aircraft systems must be flown following all applicable FAA regulations. Additionally, the LCUAS Team established robust Operational Guidelines which can be found in the Operational Guidelines section of this site. The LCUAS Team takes measures to insure accountability and transparency. Every flight has a record to include the pilot, visual observer, aircraft, location and flight times. Most flights, outside of those for training and demonstration, will result in a case report documenting the scope and purpose of the UAS mission.
Where are the agencies legally allowed to fly the drones?
LCUAS-certified pilots can legally operate a UAS anywhere in the United States. Unless mission-specific waivers are received by the FAA, FAA regulations prohibit the use of UAS in certain controlled airspaces and over people who are not involved in the operation. Local regulations may further restrict UAS use in certain jurisdictions.
Are there prohibitions on where the drones are allowed to fly? Do any air space rules apply?
The LCUAS team is currently authorized to fly in uncontrolled airspace (away from airports), below 400 feet, during daytime or nighttime hours. However, waivers can be obtained to fly in controlled airspace (within 5 miles of the airport) and above 400 feet.
How many people does it take to operate a drone?
Under 14 CFR Part 107, Civil Aircraft Operations only require a pilot. Wanting to exceed minimum FAA requirements, LCUAS guidelines require the use of a pilot and visual observer at all times, which is greater than the FAA requires. It is likely other crewmembers may be used as camera operators or to secure the area under the flight operations for safety.
Who physically flies the drones?
Each agency has pilots who have completed the minimum training requirements:
Must possess a current Remote Pilot Certificate with a small UAS Rating from the FAA
Must complete a safe flight training course (or have equivalent training)
Must have a valid driver license
Must complete three take-offs and landings with each aircraft model quarterly
What type of training do operators undergo? How does this compare with any national standards?
Depending upon which FAA regulations the pilot is operating under, the FAA requires a Remote Pilot Certification, or it leaves the requirements up to the individual agencies. The LCUAS Team has chosen to go above and beyond FAA requirements. Pilots operating under LCUAS guidelines are required to have an FAA Remote Pilot Certification are required to complete a safe flight UAS course, are required to possess a valid driver’s license, and are required to complete ongoing training. All of these trainings center upon safe and responsible flight skills.
Do other agencies have access to the drones?
Due to FAA regulations, insurance requirements, and internal training guidelines, agencies outside of the LCUAS Team are not able to use equipment owned by the LCUAS agencies. However, other emergency services agencies can request mutual-aid assistance from LCUAS Team agencies and pilots, which is be considered and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Any video footage captured by a LCUAS UAS is retained by, stored, and released as per the evidence and/or public records-release policies of the agency that owns and operates the UAS.
PRIVACY & SAFETY
Are they weaponized?
No. This is prohibited under the proposed LCUAS guidelines and by the FAA.
Can they capture footage on private property? How do you address concerns from community members who may feel as if that’s an invasion of their privacy?
Airspace is publicly owned and, therefore, it is not illegal to capture footage above most private property. However, the LCUAS guidelines prohibit the intentional observation or capture of footage on private property without permission from the person in legal control of the property, or without a warrant, or absent exigent circumstances. The LCUAS team is aware and appreciative of concerns that people may have about UAS and security, and is committed to acting above reproach in all training and during real-life incidents.
What happens if one crashes and causes injury to an operator or someone else nearby? Could that happen?
When properly operated, incidences of UAS crashes are rare, but it can happen. Safety precautions, including not flying over people uninvolved in an incident and establishing secured perimeters, further reduce the chances of someone being injured in an UAS crash, as does the fact that the UAS are relatively light-weight. However, if a UAS crashes, the LCUAS team will immediately report it to the FAA and/or the National Transportation Safety Board (as required). If anyone is injured, medical attention would be promptly provided. To date, the team has conducted dozens of missions with no crashes.
Is it possible that a drone could disrupt an emergency incident? How so? And what can be done to ensure that doesn’t happen?
Yes, depending on who is operating the UAS. Unmanned aircraft flown by first responders are operated within the incident command structure and are one asset of a coordinated emergency response. The pilot and visual observer for any public safety UAS are in constant communication with incident command and only operate when authorized by both the incident commander and pilot-in-command. This is done to ensure public safety UAS operations do not interfere with or add to a hazardous situation.
Unmanned aircraft operated by hobbyists or other commercial operations can certainly pose a hazard to first responders if operated within the same airspace. There is currently no way for public safety agencies to quickly restrict airspace or guarantee interference won’t occur. It is our job to educate the public about the applicable FAA rules and explain why the airspace above an emergency situation is important to first responders. Hopefully, this will lead to voluntary compliance and greater partnership with our communities.
Are the drones be marked in such a way that it’s obvious they are the property of your public agencies, so as not to cause confusion with a privately owned and operated drone? Will the operators be clearly identifiable as public safety employees?
Each UAS is marked with an FAA registration number. The UAS must be operated within line of sight of the operator. The operators all work for one of the member agencies and will be identifiable through their agency uniforms and/or vehicles.
RECORD RETENTION & RELEASE
Are the photos and/or video captured by drones public record and available for disclosure under the Colorado Open Records Act? How about the Freedom of Information Act?
Any video footage captured by a LCUAS UAS is retained by, stored, and released as per the evidence and/or public records-release policies of the agency that owns and operates the UAS.
How is footage from the drones captured and stored? What people and procedures are in place to handle the volume of data?
UAS video footage is extremely limited, especially as compared to body-worn cameras. The use of UAS is for specific missions and purposes, likely only a few times a month. As stated previously, those flights may often be limited to 20 minutes or less. Any footage captured is retained by the agency conducting the UAS flight, as per its agency policies and procedures.
What are the similarities and differences between use of body-worn police cameras and drones?
Body-worn police cameras are mounted to a person and generally record video in places that the officer is in. Cameras mounted on a UAS similarly record video in places the UAS is in or over. UAS owned by LCUAS team agencies are generally restricted to approximately 20 minutes of flight time, which limits video capture further than that of a body-worn camera.
If all these agencies are involved in using the drones, who will members of the media and community contact with questions about the drones and/or the footage captured?
Questions from the media may be directed to the Public Information/Public Affairs personnel at the drone operator's agency.
Some private and public organizations have been in a holding pattern for a while, refraining from using drones. What changed to allow their use? Why are you doing this now?
Project development was underway for more than three years. Recent changes to FAA regulations and evolution of technology made it possible for this team to be prepared for operational missions in 2017.
There are two ways that public safety agencies can operate UAS. The first is as a Public Aircraft Operation, which allows agencies to operate under a Certificate of Authorization (COA). This option has been available for several years and was how the LCUAS Team first obtained FAA approval. In August of 2016, the FAA released the new commercial rules for small UAS under 14 CFR Part 107. These new rules apply to commercial operations; however, public safety agencies can choose to operate by them as a Civil Aircraft Operation. These two avenues provide flexibility of operating in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace and allow for timelier, coordinated response of UAS in emergencies.
Is this something that’s just happening locally? I ask because I’m seeing other agencies use drones at a national or state level (Department of the Interior, for example)?
Unmanned Aircraft Systems are being used across the nation and world. It is becoming commonplace for fire departments, law enforcement agencies, and other emergency services agencies to utilize UAS to enhance public safety, increase the effectiveness of their operations, and decrease costs.
Some great examples of UAS programs include those at the Austin Fire Department, Michigan State Police, Menlo Fire Department, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Grand Forks Sheriff’s Office, New York Fire Department, and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office, among others. The Department of Interior is another great example of the use of UAS for natural resource management and wildland firefighting. It is also worth noting that several universities are rushing to create UAS programs for the coming workforce need.
Things with the FAA have been in flux for some time. Do you anticipate any further changes that might prevent use of the drones in the future? Are there any FAA rulings, suggestions, or information that might change things up again?
Changes in FAA regulations have been toward making the use of UAS in emergency services more practical. We expect this trend to continue, not reverse.
The release of 14 CFR Part 107 greatly changed the landscape of use of UAS throughout the U.S. The small UAS rules are enabling the use of UAS in commerce as well as governmental operations. Under Part 107, flights must be conducted during the daytime, in uncontrolled airspace, within visual line-of-site of the aircraft and not over people. The FAA has provided a process to waive many of these requirements if mitigations are in place to ensure continued safety of operations. For public safety, this means operations can more easily occur at night time, in urban environments and within controlled airspace (near an airport). The FAA is continuing to evaluate the rules for operating over people and beyond visual line-of-sight, which will expand the use of public safety UAS to include wildland fire mapping/planning and search and rescue operations.
Questions, Comments or Concerns? Send us a message and a member of the LCUAS team will respond to your inquiry as soon as possible.
For Records Requests, please contact the operator's agency directly.
Drone Oversees Prescribed Burn [video]