SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: June 21, 2016 — the Federal Aviation Administration has released new regulations for unmanned aircraft systems under 55 pounds that will take effect later this summer. The rules simplify the process for users to operate small UAS for civil and commercial purposes. Read more about the announcement here or read a summary of the regulations here.


Until the new rules are implemented, the guidance below should be used.

Public entities, which include publicly funded universities, law enforcement, fire departments and other government agencies, may currently apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA in order to use small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) in public aircraft operations.

Users of commercial and recreational UAS should be aware that in remote, rural and agricultural areas, manned aircraft, including fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, may be operating very close to ground level. Pilots conducting agricultural, firefighting, law enforcement, emergency medical, wildlife survey operations and a variety of other services all legally and routinely work in low-level airspace. Operators controlling UAS in these areas should maintain situational awareness, give way to, and remain a safe distance from these low-level, manned airplanes and helicopters.

Who can obtain a COA to operate public aircraft?

  • Only government entities—such as federal and state government agencies, law enforcement agencies and public colleges and universities—can receive a COA for public UAS aircraft operations.
  • Public aircraft operations must be conducted for a governmental function.
  • COAs are most commonly issued to public (government) entities, but are also required for civil (private) operations.
  • The FAA thoroughly evaluates each COA application to determine the safety of the proposal.
  • COAs are issued for a specific period of time, usually two years, and include special provisions unique to each proposal, such as a defined block of airspace and time of day sUAS can be used.

How can I apply for a COA?

  • Visit the FAA website for information on how to apply for a COA online.
  • A sample application can be viewed here.
  • Since 2009, the FAA has taken steps to streamline the application process by transitioning online.
  • The average COA processing time is less than 60 days.
  • Expedited authorization is available in emergency and life-threatening situations.

* For more information about public aircraft operations refer to 49 U.S.C. §§ 40102(a)(41), 40125, and FAA Advisory Circular 00-1.1A, Public Aircraft Operations (Feb. 12, 2014).

For more safety information, please download the Know Before You Fly brochure here.