A month after swarms of drones began appearing over Colorado and Nebraska, their provenance remains a mystery. How to even start? Authorities have admonished that it’s illegal to shoot them down, and no one’s managed to intercept a tell-tale electronic signal. No one’s even managed to take a clear picture of one. But there might be another way.
The scope and persistence of the operation implies that some significant entity is behind them — someone, most likely, with too much to lose to risk operating without the necessary paperwork from the Federal Aviation Administration. Could the answer to the riddle lie within an FAA database?
There are two sets of records you’d want to explore because there are two processes under which the FAA permits commercial drone flight. The first is called Part 107. To operate under these guidelines, an operator gets a Remote Pilot Certificate and registers a drone with the FAA. They can then fly pretty much anywhere, so long as they follow certain restrictions: They can’t operate at night, or fly over people, or operate from a moving vehicle, for instance. If they want to do any of these things they need to apply for a waiver.
The second form of permission is called a Certificate of Authorization, or COA. In the past these have tended to be used by public agencies like the Department of the Interior and the branches of the military. These are fairly cumbersome to obtain, but once in hand allow an operator a good deal of freedom within a defined area. They’ve fallen out of favor in recent years, however, and a search of the FAA’s database suggests that the most recent ones expired in 2015. “Many agencies are choosing to operate under Part 107,” FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor explained via email. So we can forget about these.
Back to Part 107. Based on published accounts, the Colorado drones always fly at night, sometimes fly in coordinated swarms, and fly significant distances. To do all of these things, an operator would need waivers 107.29 (flying at night), 107.31 (flying beyond visual range of the operator), and 107.35 (multiple drones flown by one operator). Out of the thousands of waivers issued, only five companies were issued a waiver valid for all three. One of those has since gone out of business.