Tactical BVLOS Waiver: Enabling Public Safety Drone Programs

DAVID HOLT / CC BY-SA

Last week, at the FAA UAS Symposium, the FAA unveiled the new Public Safety Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight (TBVLOS) waiver for first responders.  The Tactical BVLOS waiver provides public safety professionals with permission to fly beyond visual line of sight when it counts most – in cases of extreme emergency.

“In a time of extreme emergencies to safeguard human life, first responders require the capability to operate their unmanned aircraft (UAS) beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to assess the operational environment such as a fire scene at a large structural fire, to conduct an aerial search on a large roof area for a burglary in progress, or to fly over a heavily forested area to look for a missing person…,” says FAA guidance.  “To support public UAS operators acting in an active first responder capacity, the FAA may approve “First Responder Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight” (TBVLOS) waivers to 14 CFR 91.113(b).”

Flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) can be absolutely critical to the safety of first response team.  While BVLOS flight sometimes implies distance, in other situations it may mean flying on the other side of a tall building or around a corner in an urban environment.

In fact, as Chief Charles Werner, Director of DRONERESPONDERS Public Safety Alliance explains, there are many situation where remaining in visual line of sight for the remote pilot or visual observer places them in danger: in active shooter or hostage situations; hazardous material incidents which may include chemical, biological, or explosive environments; SWAT operations; search and rescue in hazardous terrain; bomb threats; fires; and more.

This Tactical BVLOS waiver was the culmination of over nine months of work largely spearheaded by a group of committed public safety drone professionals.  Charles Werner and DRONERESPONDERS joined partners including York County Fire and Life Safety, Chula Visa Police, and the San Diego [UAS Integration Pilot Program] IPP to work with the FAA on establishing the framework for the waiver.  (Additional guidance on applying for the TBVLOS waiver can by found on the DRONERESPONDERS website.)

While York County VA actually received the first BVLOS waiver, then called the “Close Proximity/Low Altitude or CPLA” Waiver, “the requirements were too stringent for other departments to follow,” explains Werner. The Chula Vista CA Police Department, Pearland TX public safety, DRONERESPONDERS and “a cadre of public safety departments” collaborated with the FAA to make the waiver easier to achieve for other departments.

“This was a learning process for public safety and the FAA regarding risks, mitigation and establishment of a safety culture,” says Werner. “Once the public safety community and the FAA understood each other’s needs, it became a collaborative effort with each working to find middle ground.”

“After 9 months of discussions, the TBVLOS waiver is now a reality and is one of the most significant achievements by the FAA for public safety,” Werner says.  “The FAA has come a long way and have been fantastic to work with.”

As storms and wildfires rage in the U.S., enabling drones for public safety departments is more critical than ever.   “Drones are transforming public safety operations by enhancing safety, improving operational effectiveness and providing real time situational awareness. Every public safety response agency must incorporate drone operations for high risk incidents to have all of the information to make the safest and most effective command decisions possible!” says Werner.

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