Yes, Virginia, there is a Way for Public Safety – and Commercial Entities – to Operate Unmanned Aircraft in the Washington, DC Area
People in the National Capital Region are probably aware of the restrictions of manned flights over the District of Columbia and parts of Virginia and Maryland. The FAA imposes security-driven airspace restrictions nationwide via Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), Prohibited Areas, and other mechanisms, but the Capital Region also has its own specific set of restrictions: the Washington, DC Flight Restricted Zone (DC FRZ) and Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) restrictions. And because unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are considered “aircraft,” they also are generally subject to these restrictions.
The DC FRZ (15.5 Nautical miles radius from National Airport, or DCA) and SFRA (30 nautical miles radius from DCA) are characterized as National Defense Airspace. Therefore, the FAA and a variety of security agencies are sensitive to any flights operating in these areas. Pilots of both manned and unmanned aircraft must be familiar with flight restrictions in these areas. Unauthorized operations in the DC FRZ in particular will raise the hackles of defense and security agencies and could result in revocation of authority to operate as well as criminal penalties. They may lead to the scrambling of a flight of F-16s. As a result, it’s generally understood that inside the Beltway is a “no fly zone” for UAS.
Nevertheless, the FAA recognizes that there are reasons to permit beneficial UAS operations within flight-restricted areas, including the DC FRZ. Public safety operations or post-disaster responses are prime examples of such uses. That is why the National Council on Public Safety UAS (NCPSU) has been meeting with FAA officials to understand the airspace restrictions and to develop protocols for public safety agencies to operate UAS in the restricted airspace in the National Capital Region.
On January 30, 2018, NCPSU Chair Charles Werner and FAA Manager of Tactical Operations Gary Miller provided a detailed review of the policies and protocols that approved public – and nonpublic – entities must follow to operate in the DC FRZ. If time is not of the essence, the best way for all UAS operators to proceed is to apply for a waiver through the FAA’s Airspace Access Program online application at www.waivers.faa.gov. The FAA will process the waiver requests within two – three weeks, and generally will only grant authority to operate in Class G airspace. Prior to operating in the DC FRZ, the operator should contact the National Regional Coordinating Center, which will coordinate the operations.
For emergency situations, UAS operators should bypass this process and call the FAA directly. The FAA will then handle air traffic coordination. The bottom line message from the FAA: “All agencies need to know about your operation or you’ll be considered a threat.”
While public safety agencies were the focus of the January 30 event, and are the most likely to need a waiver, Mr. Miller noted that these processes are not limited to public safety users. Other users may also be interested in gaining access to the DC FRZ on a temporary basis for specific needs. For example, insurance companies, as well as power and gas companies, may wish to operate during post-disaster recoveries. The FAA will grant permissions for these types of operations if a private operator can make a sufficiently compelling showing—but any authorizations are likely to be strictly limited in both time and geographic scope.