By Fritz Reber, Skydio Head of Public Safety Integration, LinkedIn
Today, we are thrilled to celebrate the Chula Vista Police Department’s new Close Proximity, Low Altitude (CPLA) waiver to enable Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) missions in emergency situations. This waiver is the result of months of collaboration on patrol drone operations, ground risk reduction, and policy innovation between the CVPD, the San Diego UAS Integration Pilot Program, and Skydio, and will enable CVPD to fly entirely new categories of missions to keep their community safe. We are honored to have played a role in advancing the entire field of public safety drones with the help of Skydio’s revolutionary autonomy capabilities. In this blog post, I will shed some light on the process of securing the waiver, explain the new permissions, and highlight some of the ways the waiver will improve drone operations in Chula Vista and potentially your community.
The Waiver Process: What it took
Since my days as the UAS Team Commander at the Chula Vista Police Department I’ve been aware of a dilemma that public safety drone pilots commonly face — how do I do what I need to do to complete this mission without losing sight of the drone and violating FAA regulations? Missions requiring tactical drone operations close-to-the-ground often run the risk of losing sight of the drone. Keeping the pilot’s eye on the aircraft, however, is one of the fundamental rules for safe drone operation. Even the ability to utilize another person to act as Visual Observer (VO) to watch the drone for the pilot in command is sometimes difficult or even impossible. Based upon the flight path of the mission, it may be impossible and impractical to put another person in a position where they can remain safe and still see the drone at all times. As cops are often told, if you can see the suspect, the suspect can see you. So, by definition a pilot who wants to use a drone to observe a suspect who is a threat to officers, will be doing this from a position where they can’t see the drone at all times.
CFR 14 Part 107.31 specifically states that the drone must be within the visual line of sight of the pilot and/or VO at all times. Those flying a public aircraft under a public safety Certificate of Authorization (COA), and therefore not subject to part 107, are still required to “see and avoid other aircraft,” which by default implies the pilot can see their own aircraft at all times. (Waivers under public safety COA’s generally provide the BVLOS capability by authorizing an exemption to CFR 14 Part 91.113(b)).
The motivations behind the regulations are 3-fold:
- The pilot has to be able to avoid other aircraft (manned and unmanned).
- The pilot must be able to avoid flying over or striking people.
- The aircraft has to be able to avoid collisions to prevent injury and property damage.
The Skydio 2, which the CVPD was the first public safety agency to fly, provides 360° Obstacle Avoidance via real-time 3D mapping, object and scene recognition, and motion planning algorithms. In conjunction with limitations on altitude to avoid manned airspace, Skydio’s Autonomy Engine technology makes it easier and safer than ever before to fly the close-to-the-ground or obstacles missions that are necessary to protect the public and those sworn to protect them.
In the past, these missions have been hard to fly. Every pilot knows the agony of constantly rechecking the drone’s position to make sure it wasn’t too close to a tree, or about to hit a light pole. As an officer, I couldn’t imagine a viable solution to this ongoing problem until I saw the Skydio 2 in action. Skydio’s strength is its object avoidance technology. The drone sees the world around it and does the work for the pilot to avoid hitting things. I understood the value of this immediately. It is transformative for pilots who either don’t have a lot of stick time or are experienced, but want to fly in challenging environments with more confidence. I am confident that every cop or firefighter who flies a Skydio will feel the same way.
So, with the help of CVPD UAS Team Commander Vern Sallee and UAS Team Manager Lt. Don Redmond, as well as San Diego UAS IPP Program Manager Katelyn McCauley, Skydio joined forces with CVPD to craft and submit an autonomy-based safety case to request Tactical BVLOS permissions from the FAA. With a safety case in hand, it was time to get to work securing the required permissions. We teamed up with Chief Charles Werner from DRONERESPONDERS, who referred us to Deputy Chief Christopher Sadler from York County Fire, which had secured an innovative COA for Close Proximity, Low Altitude BVLOS flights. However, York County’s COA requires a host of additional mitigations — and manpower — that limits its operational value.
Equipped with the Skydio Autonomy system, however, we were excited to push the envelope further. We crafted a detailed safety case that factored in the high value and low risk presented by operations in close proximity to the ground and nearby structures. The safety case also discussed the reliability of Skydio’s Obstacle Avoidance capabilities. It took dozens of hours of meetings and documentation, and as of the waiver grant date on June 25, the rest is history.
Close Proximity, Low Altitude Operations: Mitigating ground and air risk and maximizing efficiency
In applying for the FAA waiver, the Chula Vista PD was required to develop a detailed safety case. Every agency will have to develop their own protocols for their safety cases, but here is what Chula Vista proposed in their waiver application:
All operations were to remain below the altitude of 150 feet above ground level (AGL) at all times;
- The aircraft would remain within 1,000 feet laterally from the pilot;
- First Responders on the ground, trained in the basics of Visual Operations (VO), would serve as “modified VOs” to provide additional information on airspace traffic in the flight radius, to the extent necessary;
- Operations were to be conducted using the Skydio 2 due to its object detection and avoidance capabilities.
These conditions were designed to mitigate ground and air risk, and allow pilots to secure critical aerial views of evolving emergencies, without adding safety risks from the drone itself. By remaining below 50 foot in altitude, and within 1,000 feet laterally, the pilot remains below typical manned airspace, and close enough to the drone to intervene if necessary. And thanks to the Skydio Autonomy features on Skydio 2, the risk of collisions with ground obstacles is substantially reduced.
In the end, following a healthy and helpful dialogue with the FAA, CVPD received a first-of-a-kind COA that authorized “First Responder Tactical BVLOS” within the following parameters:
- The operator must not operate any higher than 50 feet above or greater than 400 feet laterally of the nearest obstacle. Combination of 50 feet above an obstacle must not exceed 400 feet AGL;
- The aircraft must remain within 1,500 feet laterally from the pilot;
- There is NO requirement to use VOs, but the pilot must return to visual line of sight operations as soon as practical.
The result is a groundbreaking COA that enables new and useful operations in evolving situations. To gain situational awareness behind a wall, in a forest, or from a position of cover, pilots can now simply put up their drone, rather than having to wait for an FAA approval or set up a network of visual observers. Although the COA does not require the use of a Skydio drone, there is no question that the Skydio 2’s collision avoidance capability provides unquestable peace of mind. In order to mitigate the risk of flying so low to the ground and close to obstacles, some agencies may reasonably decide that these operations should only be conducted with a Skydio product. Either way, the flexibility of this new approach provides immeasurable value.
Undeniable value: Better first response through better drone operations
One life-saving promise of drones in public safety is to send drones in to gain awareness of situations too dangerous to send first responders. Often, however, keeping the pilot safe while flying the drone into danger is next-to-impossible while keeping the drone within line of sight. Chula Vista’s new Tactical BVLOS waiver solves that dilemma. Now, drones can add value in a range of public safety operations, including:
- Natural Disasters. Gain information on ongoing fires, mudslides, earthquake damage areas, flood plains, and more without having to send first responders into danger zones.
- Hostile Suspects. Pilots can stay behind cover with their head down, gaining situational awareness and the opportunity to deescalate a situation rather than directly confronting.
- Search and Rescue. In complex environments, search at low altitude to see below structures without forcing search teams to traverse harsh terrain.
These types of operations have traditionally tested the pilot’s desire to complete the mission while also remaining compliant with FAA regulations. Resolving this constant dilemma was a major motivation for everyone working on this waiver.
Bringing CPLA Operations to Your Agency
Skydio takes great pride in the fact that this achievement will advance Tactical BVLOS flights for the entire public safety drone space. I believe more and more agencies will be able to secure CPLA Waivers, and while the CVPD waiver doesn’t make Skydio drones a must, it is impossible to understate the benefit of using a drone tailor-made to fly in close proximity to obstacles — a features that gives first responders the confidence they need to fly safely and efficiently.
If you’re working toward a similar waiver or just want to talk drones feel free to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get more information at www.skydio.com or email at email@example.com.