Drones in Minnesota and elsewhere: What FAA drone paperwork reveals

Public Record Media (PRM) recently received a list of operational and expired “Certificates of Authorization” (COAs) for drones operating in the state of Minnesota.  The list was obtained through a public records request filed with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and was current as of May 7, 2013.  The list includes two active certificates – one for the University of North Dakota, and the other for the Minnesota Army National Guard.  It also includes nine expired COAs, plus one denial (for Otter Tail County, Minnesota). 

During the course of our correspondence with the FAA, agency personnel also directed us to a resource on their web site – a page that hosts a cache of COA documents made public through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation, as well as through voluntary agency action.  The COA collection provides a broad overview of the entities that have sought permission for drone operations, as well as details related to specific deployments.  At present, the use of a drone requires a federal waiver from the FAA.  The agency is currently formulating licensing guidelines for private drone use, and hopes to issue them by 2015.

Examining the FAA’s COA documentation provides a wealth of data on the particulars of drone deployments over time.  PRM has posted a representative sampling of these COAs on our site. 

U.S. Army - Shadow 200 (2007 COA)

Some of the posted COAs are particularly rich with operational details.  For example, a 2007-era COA for the U.S. Army contains many mechanical specifics for the drone at issue, including hardware descriptions such as motor type and payload capacity. 

Under the terms of the COA, the Army’s Shadow 200 drone was authorized to fly within a “one nautical mile wide” corridor in the Polk Army Airfield.  The aircraft was launched from a guide rail system by using “stored energy from a nitrogen accumulator.”  According to the COA, the Shadow 200 contained a number of redundant communications and control systems, plus an “arresting system” to slow and stop the vehicle.  The drone was also apparently programmed to return to pre-set coordinates in the event that it lost contact with its controllers on the ground.

The 2007 COA contains numerous prohibitions governing the use of the drone, including a flight ceiling of 2000 feet, restrictions on its use over populated areas, and requirements for ground crews and chase aircraft to maintain visual contact.

Despite the extensive level of detail contained in the COA, the document does not include any specifics related to the mission of the Shadow 200.

Border Patrol - Predator (2006 COA)

Other COAs posted on the FAA site are highly redacted.  A 2006 COA for Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) reveals the basic surveillance capabilities and operations of the drone, but also exempts much information under FOIA exemption 7, which deals with “records compiled for law enforcement purposes.”  From what is visible in the document, CPB was authorized to operate a General Atomics Predator drone equipped with turret-housed Raytheon surveillance cameras.  Predator drones are perhaps best known for their use as aerial weapons platforms in Yemen and Afghanistan. 

As with other drones, the CBP’s Predator was equipped with remote guidance systems, but was also required to be flown within the field of view of several ground observers.  One page of the CBP’s COA that relates to procedures for operation in the event of “lost communication” is significantly redacted.

Border Patrol - Predator (2008 COA)

The format of the FAA’s COAs appears to vary over the course of time, and different COAs include different prohibitions and warnings.  In a 2008 COA for a Border Patrol Predator, the FAA notes that the agency had been granted a drone waiver that differed from its customary guidelines due to the “homeland security” mission that the drone would be fulfilling.  The COA also makes a pointed reference to the fact that “the Department of Homeland Security has assumed all risk associated with this operation, including risks associated with mid-air collision between the (drone) and all other civilian and military aircraft in the area.” 

Minnesota COAs

The list of Minnesota-related COAs obtained by PRM does not include the entirety of the COAs themselves.  PRM will soon be pursuing COA documents for all of the state’s active drones, in order to learn more about the scope of their operations.

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Matt Ehling

Public Record Media