Starting a Drone as a First Responder (DFR) Program: A Comprehensive Guide

In recent years UAS have been increasingly employed in numerous sectors and industries, particularly in the realm of public safety. Drones have proven to be instrumental tools in scenarios and mission sets that necessitate rapid response, eyes in the sky, or to access to challenging locations.

This article offers a comprehensive guide to establishing a Drone as First Responder (DFR) program, discussing the various facets of the process, including program planning, the FAA beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) waiver process, our hardware and software recommendations, establishing SOPs for safety and risk mitigation, as well as other helpful resources to help you establish a successful program.

Table of Contents

  1. Defining Goals for your DFR Program
  2. A Concept of Operations (ConOps)
  3. Identifying and Engaging Stakeholders
  4. The FAA Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Waiver Process
  5. Create Policy and Procedure
  6. Recommended Drones for DFR
  7. Recommended Software for DFR
  8. DFR Training
  9. Additional Resources for DFR
  10. Conclusion

Defining Goals for your DFR Program

Before diving into the operational details of setting up a DFR program, it's essential to clearly define the goals you’re trying to achieve and identify the problems it will help to solve. By asking the right questions at this stage, you can ensure that your DFR program is customized to address the specific needs of your agency and your community.

Does my agency/department need a DFR Program?
Why you want a DFR program is a question that should clarify the intended purpose or vision of the program. It should address the long-term objectives that the your organization hopes to achieve. For example, do you intend to use drones to improve overall response times, increase the effectiveness of emergency operations, or perhaps use them as a force multiplier in situations with limited resources?

What challenges am I trying to overcome with DFR?
This question aims to identify the specific challenges or issues within your agency or community that a DFR program could help to alleviate. Some common problems that a DFR program can address include:

  • Backed up CAD Queues: DFR can provide initial response and real-time video feed from the scene, allowing dispatchers to prioritize resources more effectively and potentially clear lower-priority incidents without sending a unit
  • Lack of Coverage in the City: In geographically large areas or cities with complex infrastructure, ensuring comprehensive coverage can be a challenge. Drones can provide additional eyes in the sky, improving overall coverage and response times.
  • Staffing Shortages: Especially in times of tight budgets and staff shortages, drones can serve as force multipliers, allowing a single operator to cover a large area or monitor a situation without putting additional staff at risk.

By addressing these questions, you'll ensure that your DFR program is designed with a clear purpose and direction in mind. This will help you make informed decisions throughout the process, from selecting the right hardware and software to applying for FAA waivers and training your personnel.

A Concept of Operations (ConOps)

Concept of Operations (ConOps)

A Concept of Operations (ConOps) acts as the strategic blueprint of a commander's assumptions or intentions concerning an operation or series of operations. It's a comprehensive statement - either verbal or graphic - that provides an overall picture of an operation, as defined by the Joint Publication 1-02 “DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms”.

Crucial for launching a successful Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone program, a ConOps document is often reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when you apply for a BVLOS waiver. The FAA checks that your team is aware of, and has implemented, the necessary operational culture and procedures to ensure safe drone flights.

Key Elements of a ConOps Plan

The main components of a ConOps document encompass in-depth descriptions of the aircraft, mission, procedures, and risk mitigation strategies. This document should effectively communicate the following points:

Mission Purpose: Outline the purpose of the mission operating under the BVLOS waiver.

Organizational Overview: This should focus on the organization's goals, flight experience, current and past regulatory approvals, and the objectives for obtaining future approvals.

Success Criteria: Define what a successful mission looks like for your organization.

UAS System Overview: Describe the UAS system used in the mission, including details on the data link, airframe, and general familiarity with the airframe.

Operational Area: Give a comprehensive description of the area and terrain the drone will fly over, including details about the landing and takeoff locations, notable mission areas, and specific reasons for choosing the area.

Mission Details: Provide information about the pilots, mission objectives, and other high-level information.

A practical drone program typically takes a "crawl, walk, run" approach to develop the program in three distinct phases, each increasing in complexity as the program gains flight history and experience.


Aircraft and Technical Specifications

The FAA reviews the ConOps document, which includes a detailed overview of the proposed aircraft system. This overview should contain a specification sheet of the aircraft, and any standard operating, maintenance, and emergency procedures provided by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).


Mission Specifications & Operational Volumes

Effective ConOps documentation will detail the mission, the proposed operational area, and risk mitigation processes. It should include a map of the area, proposed operational, contingency, emergency and ground risk buffers.


Standard Operating Procedures and Limitations

Here, you describe and refer to the location of important documents within the waiver submission packet. These include:

  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
  • Flight Operations Manual
  • Emergency Procedures
  • Fleet Management System
  • Maintenance Procedures

Risk Assessment and Mitigation

Risk assessment and mitigation revolve around identifying potential risks that may arise during a flight operation and putting measures in place to manage these risks. The risk mitigation strategy might include equipping the UAS with a deployable parachute or visually detecting and preventing ground intruders from entering the operational volume.


The Crawl, Walk, Run Model

Crawl Phase: Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) and Command and Control (C2) Link

The crawl phase is the first, foundational stage in the progression towards BVLOS operations. During this phase, operators are required to maintain Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) with the drone. This means that operators need to be able to see the drone with the naked eye at all times during flight. It's a crucial stage for building basic skills in drone piloting, as well as for testing and validating the C2 link. The C2 link is the communication link between the ground controller and the drone, which is vital for safe and efficient operations. Understanding the drone's performance characteristics and ensuring reliable communication within VLOS lays the groundwork for more complex procedures.

Walk Phase: Complex Procedures and Extended Operations

Once the VLOS and C2 link have been mastered in the crawl phase, operators can progress to the walk phase. This phase involves the implementation of more complex procedures, including operations beyond the pilot's direct line of sight, but still within a predefined, restricted area. Extended operations may be facilitated by additional technology, such as radar systems or observers, to maintain situational awareness. This phase is key in refining the procedures for handling potential contingencies or emergencies, and to gain experience and confidence in the extended operations.

Run Phase: Full BVLOS Operations

The run phase is the desired end state of drone operations where fully autonomous BVLOS operations are conducted. This includes operations over long distances or in complex, dynamic environments, such as urban areas or over populated regions. The success of this phase is highly dependent on advanced technology such as autonomous flight control systems, reliable C2 links, collision-avoidance technology, and robust safety systems. In this phase, operators manage the overall mission, monitor systems for abnormalities, and intervene if necessary, rather than directly controlling the drone.

Identifying and Engaging Stakeholders

DFR: Engaging Stakeholders

Now that you've created your ConOps, the next step is to Identify and engage stakeholders to ensure your program's successful implementation. A stakeholder in this context refers to anyone who is affected by, has an interest in, or influence over the DFR program. These can include internal stakeholders like your agency's staff and leadership, and external stakeholders like the community your agency serves, local government bodies, civil rights groups, and in some cases, the media.

Internal Stakeholders

Internal stakeholders are members of your organization who will be directly involved in implementing and operating the DFR program. This can include:

Leadership: The support of your agency's leadership is essential for the program's success. They will often be responsible for approving budgets, policy changes, and providing strategic direction.

Operational Staff: This includes individuals who will be using the drone technology directly, such as drone pilots, tactical teams, and dispatchers.

Support Staff: These are individuals involved indirectly with the program, like IT support for managing data storage and security, legal counsel for ensuring compliance, and training coordinators for ongoing skill development.

External Stakeholders

External stakeholders are those outside your organization but are impacted by your DFR program. This can include:

The Community: The public is a crucial stakeholder. It's important to have open communication and transparency about the DFR program to ensure their trust and buy-in. Regular community meetings, presentations, and open forums can help address any concerns or questions they might have.

Government Bodies: These can include local city councils, county officials, or state representatives. They may play a role in approving funding, policy changes, or ordinances related to your program.

Civil Rights Groups: Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other privacy advocates often have an interest in drone programs due to potential privacy implications. Engaging with these groups early on can help ensure your program respects citizens' rights and privacy.

The Media: The media is a powerful tool for communication. Building a positive relationship with the media can help disseminate accurate information about the program, its benefits, and address any misconceptions around DFR and privacy concerns.

Engagement Strategies

Once stakeholders are identified, the next step is to engage them effectively. This could involve regular meetings to update stakeholders on the program's progress, seeking input on decision-making, providing education and training on drone operations, and setting up channels for ongoing communication.

Remember that the aim of stakeholder engagement is not just to inform, but to listen and incorporate valuable feedback. An effective engagement process will lead to a DFR program that is better understood, more accepted, and more effective in meeting its objectives.


The FAA Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Waiver Process

FAA Air Traffic Control Tower

The ability to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) vastly expands the potential applications of drones. Before we delve into the BVLOS waiver process, it’s important to define what BVLOS is and isn’t.

BVLOS, or Beyond Visual Line of Sight, refers to drone flight operations that extend beyond the pilot's direct visual contact. To fly drones commercially, a Part 107 certificate is necessary following FAA's requirements, including passing a 60-item aviation-based test. However, public aircraft operations (PAOs), like government agencies or law enforcement, require a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to facilitate their drone operations.

As a PAO, It’s important to understand §91.113(b) of the FAA, which states:


When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to detect-and-avoid other aircraft. When a rule of this section gives another aircraft the right-of-way, the pilot shall give way to that aircraft and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear.


Applying for a COA to fly BVLOS involves submitting a Concept of Operations (ConOps), which details safe flight operations without maintaining visual line of sight. The BVLOS waiver, a list of waived regulations, allows for such operations within the defined operational area in the ConOps, given that all outlined safety measures are met. Safety remains paramount in BVLOS flight operations and FAA's priority, thus, in-air collisions avoidance and deconfliction measures must be in place to secure BVLOS flight permissions.

Now that we understand BVLOS better, let’s dive into the FAA waiver process:


1. Submitting Public Declaration Letters (PDLs)

To apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA), the first step is to submit a Public Declaration Letter (PDL) to the FAA. This letter validates your government status and enables you to move forward with the COA application process.

2. Filing COAs Using the FAA's COA Applications Processing System (CAPS)

Once your PDL is approved, you'll need to submit a COA application through the FAA's COA Application Processing System (CAPS). This system will guide you through the necessary steps to complete your application.

3. Submitting the COA to the FAA Waiver Team

Your completed COA application, along with the details of your planned operation, will then be submitted to the FAA waiver team for evaluation. The COA should outline the class of airspace in which you will be operating (using tools like VFR or ArcGIS for reference), whether you'll be operating in restricted space, and include a map of your operations.

4. Submitting a Concept of Operations (ConOps)

As part of the COA application, you'll need to submit a Concept of Operations (ConOps) document. This document will detail how you plan to conduct your drone operations, including the safety measures you'll implement to maintain separation from other aircraft (detect-and-avoid mitigations).

Create Policy and ProcedureDFR Program: Policy and Procedure

When implementing BVLOS operations within your department, establishing a robust policy and procedural framework is paramount. This framework helps to guide your staff, ensuring that operations are conducted safely, consistently, and in compliance with regulatory requirements.

Identify Policy Objectives: Start by outlining the objectives of your policy. This could include improving operational efficiency, enhancing safety, enabling rapid response to emergencies, or providing new services. Your objectives should align with your department's overall mission and strategic goals.

Understand Regulatory Compliance: Your policy should fully comply with all applicable FAA regulations, including those specific to BVLOS operations. This involves understanding the implications of FAA's §91.113(b) and other relevant rules, ensuring that your policy incorporates the necessary provisions to adhere to these regulations.

Develop Procedures: Your procedures should provide step-by-step instructions for your BVLOS operations. This might include pre-flight checks, flight operations, emergency response protocols, and post-flight reviews. Procedures should be developed in consultation with your pilots, leveraging their expertise and ensuring they are practical and efficient.

Training and Awareness: Make sure that your team is fully trained on these policies and procedures. This should include both theoretical training, to ensure they understand the reasons behind the policies, and practical training, to ensure they know how to implement the procedures effectively. It's also important to ensure ongoing awareness, including updates as regulations or technologies change.

Monitoring and Review: Policies and procedures should not be set in stone. As your BVLOS operations evolve, and as regulatory and technological landscapes change, you'll need to regularly review and update your policies and procedures. Establish a regular review process, involving key stakeholders including pilots and regulatory compliance staff.

Creating comprehensive policies and procedures is an essential step in effectively and safely implementing BVLOS operations. By establishing a robust framework, you'll help ensure that your team is prepared for any situation, enhancing the safety and effectiveness of your drone operations.

Identify Partners and Resources

In the context of preparing for BVLOS operations, identifying relevant partners and resources can be a significant advantage. This can mean building relationships with industry partners, sourcing necessary equipment, and seeking out advice from relevant expertise. Here are some key areas to consider:

Industry Partners

Forge relationships with drone manufacturers, software providers, and other industry stakeholders. These partnerships can help you stay updated with the latest drone technology, operational best practices, and industry trends. Additionally, such partners can assist with technical issues, equipment upgrades, and other aspects of your operations.

Other Departments with DFR programs

Connect with other public agencies that are already conducting BVLOS operations. They can share their experiences, lessons learned, and best practices. Private-sector companies, especially those in the drone industry, can also provide valuable insights and solutions for BVLOS operations.

Equipment Suppliers

Identify and establish relationships with suppliers for necessary equipment like drones, control systems, and detection or avoidance technologies. Ensure these suppliers can meet your specific BVLOS needs in terms of range, reliability, and safety.

Service Providers

Certain aspects of BVLOS operations may be outsourced to service providers. This might include maintenance, data analysis, or training services. Determine what aspects of your operations could benefit from outsourced support, and identify potential service providers.

Training and Consultancy Services

As BVLOS operations require advanced skills and knowledge, consider engaging training or consultancy services to prepare your team. They can provide customized training on BVLOS operations, as well as advice on regulatory compliance, risk management, and operational planning.

Regulatory Entities

Develop a relationship with your local FAA office and other regulatory bodies. They can provide guidance on BVLOS-related regulations and the waiver application process. Regular communication with these entities can help ensure your operations remain compliant and can help expedite approval processes.

Identifying the right partners and resources not only equips you with the tools needed for successful BVLOS operations, but also builds a network of support and expertise that will ensure your organization stays at the forefront of drone technology and operation.

Recommended Drones/Hardware for DFR

Choosing the right drone for DFR operations is dependent on several factors, including the types of missions, the environment, and the budget. Some recommended models include:

DJI M350 RTK

DJI Matrice 300 & Matrice 350 RTK

DJI Matrice 30T

DJI Matrice 30T
EVO II 640T
Autel EVO II 640T
Autel EVO Max 4T
Autel EVO Max 4T
Skydio X2
Skydio X2

In addition to the drone itself, other hardware like additional batteries, battery charging stations, propellers, and carrying cases are essential for successful operations.

Recommended Software for DFR

Choosing the right software solution for your BVLOS operations can significantly affect your mission's success. The software you select should enable your team to plan, monitor, and analyze drone flights effectively while ensuring safe and efficient operations. Here are our recommendations:

DroneSense Remote: This software platform provides a comprehensive solution for planning, coordinating, and visualizing drone flights in real-time. DroneSense Remote allows you to seamlessly oversee BVLOS operations while ensuring high safety standards. Its features, such as live video streaming and secure data sharing, make it an excellent choice for DFR operations.

CAPE by Motorola: CAPE software provides a robust platform that's tailored for first responders. Its intuitive user interface allows operators to control drones remotely, review live footage, and handle data with ease. CAPE's strong focus on security and reliability aligns well with the needs of DFR operations.

Paladin: Watchtower by Paladin presents a powerful tool for advanced drone operations. It supports strategic planning, real-time control, and in-depth analysis of drone flights. With an emphasis on situational awareness and secure communication, Paladin's Watchtower can significantly enhance the effectiveness and safety of your DFR operations.

Keep in mind, the right software for your organization should align with your operational needs, regulatory requirements, and available resources. Always consider performing a trial or pilot test with potential software to ensure it meets your needs before making a long-term commitment.

Training & Safety

DFR Training

In a Drone as a First Responder (DFR) program, training is crucial to ensure safety and effectiveness. Various roles, such as the Remote Pilot-in-Command (RPIC) and the Visual Observer (VO), require specialized training and a clear understanding of their responsibilities. The following section provides a comprehensive overview of key training areas:

Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) and Visual Observer (VO) Training

A DFR program necessitates two critical roles – the RPIC and the VO. The RPIC is the person responsible for launching, maneuvering, and landing the drone, while the VO is tasked with observing the airspace around the drone and alerting the RPIC of potential hazards.

Training for these roles encompasses learning about their responsibilities, effective communication between the two, and how to handle various flight scenarios. A well-trained RPIC and VO can collaboratively ensure safe and efficient operations, particularly during Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, which are often required in emergency situations.

Flight Safety Checklist

It's essential for the RPIC and VO to go through a comprehensive flight safety checklist before every flight. This checklist should include verifying drone functionality, observing weather conditions, assessing ground and air hazards, and identifying potential intrusion zones, such as mission-occupied airspaces and heliports.


Observing Weather Conditions

The VO must be aware of the weather conditions for each mission. Conditions like rain and high winds can affect the drone's performance and pose potential safety hazards. Therefore, being able to assess and respond to changing weather conditions is a key part of VO training.

Observing Ground and Air Hazards

Identifying and reporting ground-based and air-based hazards is a critical responsibility of the VO. These hazards might include power lines, low-flying aircraft, or other drones in the airspace. The VO must communicate these potential hazards to the RPIC promptly to prevent any accidents.

Potential Intrusion Zones

The VO needs to monitor potential intrusion zones, such as mission-occupied airspaces or heliports. They must report back if the drone intrudes or will intrude over these zones, ensuring the RPIC can take appropriate action.

In Air Detect-and-Avoid (Mitigation)

In addition to identifying potential hazards, the VO also plays an integral role in mitigating risks. By advising on how to avoid any potential hazards – such as directing the drone to change direction or altitude – they help ensure a safe flight.

Communication Structures

Effective communication between the RPIC and VO is crucial for safe drone operation. Both parties need to use clear and concise language to ensure messages are quickly understood and acted upon. The RPIC should keep the VO informed about any changes in the drone's direction, altitude, or flight plan. In turn, the VO needs to relay any potential hazards and their locations to the RPIC.

Downed Aircraft Recovery Procedure (DARP)

Despite all precautions, incidents can still occur. In the event of a drone crash, it's essential to follow a Downed Aircraft Recovery Procedure (DARP). This step-by-step process ensures public safety and efficient recovery of the downed aircraft. Training for DARP includes understanding how to relay detailed instructions to ground units, call in emergency response when needed, and secure the crash site for evidence recovery and witness interviews.

By ensuring rigorous and ongoing training in these key areas, a DFR program can effectively harness the capabilities of drones while prioritizing safety and efficiency.

 

Additional Resources for DFR

For further in-depth knowledge and training, here are some useful resources:

Part 91.113 - This document explains the FAA's regulation about right-of-way rules: Except water operations.

FAA Definitions and abbreviations - This link directs to a comprehensive list of terms and abbreviations used in the FAA regulations, helpful for understanding official language and requirements.

FAASTeam Directory - Connect directly with your FAASTeam representatives to get expert advice and guidance on a variety of aviation safety topics.

Pilot Institute Part 107 Course - A comprehensive training program that prepares drone pilots to pass the FAA Part 107 exam, necessary for commercial drone operations.

FAA Drone Webinars - A collection of webinars from the FAA on a variety of drone-related topics, offering insights and information directly from the regulators.

FAA Contacts for Law Enforcement - Direct contact information for the FAA's law enforcement assistance program, providing a crucial point of communication for agencies seeking to use drones in their operations.

Public Safety and Law Enforcement Toolkit - A toolkit from the FAA designed specifically to assist public safety agencies in implementing drone programs, including guidance on regulations, waivers, training, and more.

DRONERESPONDERS - A non-profit program dedicated to building a community of drone operators in public safety agencies, providing resources, training, and networking opportunities.

These resources can provide you with more specialized information and help you build a strong, effective, and legal DFR program. Always keep updating your knowledge and stay in tune with the latest developments in the UAV industry to ensure the best and safest practices.

Conclusion

Developing a Drone First Responder (DFR) program may seem like an overwhelming task, but with the right resources, guidance, and training, it can become a transformational asset for your public safety organization. Utilizing drones in first response scenarios can drastically improve situational awareness, augment personnel safety, and ultimately, save more lives.

If you're just starting your journey or looking to enhance your existing DFR program, don't hesitate to reach out. Our team of subject matter experts, which includes Part 107 pilots and professionals with a background in public safety, are ready and eager to help. From selecting the best hardware to navigating the regulatory landscape, we're here to facilitate your pathway towards an effective and efficient DFR program.

We wish you every success in implementing and running your DFR program. As you continue to develop your skills and expertise, remember the primary rule of drone operations: always prioritize safety. As you integrate this new technology into your operations, keep safety at the forefront of your planning and decision-making process. Fly safe and good luck!