Public Aircraft Operations are limited by federal statue to certain government operations within U.S. airspace. Title 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(41) provides the definition of "Public Aircraft" and § 40125 provides the qualifications for public aircraft status. Whether an operation qualifies as a public aircraft operation is determined on a flight-by-flight basis, under the terms of the statute. The considerations when making this determination are aircraft ownership, the operator, the purpose of the flight, and the persons on board the aircraft.
For public aircraft operations, the FAA issues a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) that permits public agencies and organizations to operate a particular aircraft, for a particular purpose, in a particular area. The COA allows an operator to use a defined block of airspace and includes special safety provisions unique to the proposed operation. COAs usually are issued for a specific period – up to two years in many cases.
The FAA works with these organizations to develop conditions and limitations for UAS operations to ensure they do not jeopardize the safety of other aviation operations. The objective is to issue a COA with parameters that ensure a level of safety equivalent to manned aircraft. Usually, this entails making sure that the UAS does not operate in a populated area and that the aircraft is observed, either by someone in a manned aircraft or someone on the ground to ensure separation from other aircraft in accordance with right-of-way rules. Common public uses today include law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training, and other government operational missions.
The FAA manages public aircraft COAs through its COA Online system. Before the FAA grants an agency access to COA Online, the agency (or proponent) will be asked to provide the FAA with a "declaration letter" from the city, county, or state attorney's office assuring the FAA that the proponent is recognized as a political subdivision of the government of the State under Title 49 of the United Stated Code (USC) section (§) 40102(a)(41)(c) or (d) and that the proponent will operate its unmanned aircraft in accordance with 49 USC. § 40125(b) (not for commercial purposes). An agency's accountable executive cannot self-certify their agency is a "public" agency.
The typical COA application approval process is completed within 60 business days of receipt, provided there are no submittal errors, missing information, or safety or airspace issues. Please email the FAA/UAS Integration Office at 9-AJR-36-UAS@faa.gov to get started.
- Advisory Circular 00-1.1A, Public Aircraft Operations, February 12, 2014
- Clarification of June 13, 2014 Interpretation on Research Using UAS (PDF), July 3, 2014
- UAS Operations by Public Universities for Aeronautical Research (PDF), June 13, 2014
- Letter to COA Holders – Statutory Requirement to Register UAS (PDF), November 5, 2014
- Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA), ATO UAS description of the COA process