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Public COAs - FAQ

UAS Public COAs and the Drone/UAS Practice Group

Antonelli Law is a leading national drone law practice group. The head of the group, Jeffrey Antonelli, founded the group in January 2014. Our roster of experts is unsurpassed by any firm in the country, large or small. The firm boasts clients nationwide from Hawaii to New York, with deep experience in regulatory actions, aviation, and academic UAS. One of our attorneys flies for the world's largest airline. 

We provide free initial consultations regarding Public COAs as well as Section 333s including an estimate of our fees to help you so that you may include a budget request for your program.

If you have any question you may call attorney Jeffrey Antonelli at 312-201-8310 or send an email at
PUBLIC COAs FAQ and Basic Instructions


    1) Only for public agencies
    2) The agency self-certifies the pilot and aircraft.
    3) No manned pilot's license needed.


Give yourself plenty of lead time before you operate 

Preparing the application

It is vital to give yourself enough lead time to prepare the COA before you intend to operate. If you are a university and want to operate a UAV during the fall semester, consider beginning the paperwork at the beginning of the spring semester – or sooner - in order to give yourself enough time to obtain the necessary letter from your state’s attorney general, register your UAV with the FAA, and gather and submit the other required information.

  • FAA approval can take up to 60 days, and possibly longer depending on the complexity of the operation. 
  • The COA can be effective for a two year period. 

Three basic prerequisites are needed to apply for a Public COA: 

1) Show that you are a public agency

The FAA requires your public agency to provide a letter, preferably from your state’s attorney general, certifying that the agency is public. This is a necessary first step before being allowed to proceed through the online portal to apply for a COA.

Examples of public agencies who can apply for and receive – or have received – public COAs include local law enforcement or emergency response; public universities and community colleges; and federal agencies like NASA and Customs and Border Protection.

2) Have a public aircraft  

The aircraft needs to be owned or leased by a public agency, such as the federal or a state or local government, and registered with the FAA to have an N-Number. This will be required before you apply for your public COA.
A leased aircraft must be exclusively used by the leasing public agency for a minimum period of 90 days. The public agency may contract with a private operator to operate the aircraft and designate this in the COA application. Although the aircraft may only be used by the leasing agency during this period, the individual being contracted with to operate the aircraft may work for other clients during that time.
The aircraft cannot be flown for compensation or hire. Flights for compensation require an exemption under Section 333.
You need to certify that your aircraft is airworthy.
  1. If the UAV is one the FAA is familiar with, such as a DJI or 3D Robotics product, you can provide the manufacturer’s user manuals and state that your certification is based on the manufacturer’s representations.
  2. If the UAV is custom-built, you may need to provide more information, such as an explanation of your testing methods or maybe a report from an engineer.
  3. Additionally, when you are submitting your application, you may need to provide additional summary information regarding the system, such as an explanation of its operational capacity.

3) Serve a government function.

Governmental functions are defined as “an activity undertaken by a government, such as national defense, intelligence missions, firefighting, search and rescue, law enforcement (including transportation of prisoners, detainees, and illegal aliens), aeronautical research, or biological or geological resource management. 49 CFR 40125 (a)(2)

Interesting Notes for Discussion: 

The FAA has stated that “aeronautical research” for the purposes of a public COA must involve the development of an aircraft to qualify – non-aviation research that incidentally uses a UAV would not qualify in this definition. The FAA will allow universities to use UAVs for research that is non-aeronautical; however, the defined government function should be worded in the terms of aeronautical research. 

A state university with a public aircraft COA can use it for aeronautical research is the state’s intended mission, but the findings of the research would have to belong to the state regardless of the source of funding, including private research grants.[1]


A UAV that does not meet these criteria can still be a public aircraft if the Administrator determines that there are extraordinary circumstances; the aircraft is being operated for search and rescue; a community would not otherwise have access to S&R services; and a government entity demonstrates that granting the waiver is necessary to prevent an undue economic burden.

What needs to be included in the application

The FAA has an online portal through which a public agency will submit all the necessary information and will guide the applicant through the process. An agency will receive access to the online portal after the FAA receives the proper letter certifying that the agency is a public agency.

Once logged in, the applicant will need to provide specific information to the system prior to submitting the application.

Location Information

A detailed description of the location in which you wish to fly is required when submitting a COA Application. This should include, at minimum:

  1. Information regarding the airspace you wish to operate in, including the class of airspace and the nearest airports;
  2. Geographic coordinates of your operation;
  3. Launch and recovery sites;
  4. Intended flight routes;
  5. Operational ceilings and floors; and
  6. Detailed map(s) of the area.

Operating Procedures

The FAA will required two descriptions of operations:

  1. A summary of the program objectives, which may be 1-2 sentences.
  2. A detailed operational summary.

This detailed operational summary needs to be just that – a detailed step-by-step procedure of how you intend to conduct operations. This would include:

  1. Whether operations will be during the day or night;
  2. The length of intended flights;
  3. How often you intend to operate;
  4. Contingency plans, including plans for emergency situations, and lost link and lost communication scenarios; and
  5. Information on the flight crew, their qualifications, and specific training on the UAV to be operated.

Note: public COA holders may not be required to have an individual with an airman’s certificate act as the Pilot in Command.


The individual who signs off on the COA application will be the FAA point of contact for any questions. That person must be knowledgeable about the process and the system, and not merely a bureaucrat. For example, the president of a public university should not be the signatory unless the president has been actively involved in the application and can explain what has been proposed. A better choice for the signatory may be the professor who wishes to use the UAV in her class.

About the Antonelli Law Drone/UAS Practice Group

The Drone/UAS Practice Group at Antonelli Law is a group of attorneys with deep knowledge of law, technology, privacy, and aviation. Our federal practice relating to the rapidly developing commercial "drone"/Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) industry allows us to serve clients nationwide. In addition, our attorneys are licensed in numerous states from California to New York and  in between.  

  • Jeffrey Antonelli, an unmanned aircraft pilot with 15 year's experience in litigation, general counsel, insurance defense and technology 
  • Mark Del Bianco, more than three decades of federal administrative law, antitrust, and technology expertise
  • Kate Fletcher, an active commercial pilot with the world's largest airline as well as attorney
  • Douglas Marshall, aviation consultant, chairs the ASTM F38.02.01 Task Group on Standards for Operations Over People, and serves as a United States delegate to ISO TC 20/SC 16, UAS Subcommittee
  • Melissa Brabender, associate attorney, accomplished federal litigator and counselor
  • Amelia Niemi, associate attorney, graduate of esteemed Intellectual Property program concentration at DePaul College of Law   
  • Megan Heiting, associate attorney, LLM in Intellectual Property from DePaul College of Law
  • Benjamin Fink, associate attorney
  • Barbara Munube, UAS law clerk, LLM in Int'l Aviation Law
  • Olivia Fowler, UAS Client Concierge

Research and support staff include research assistant , an engineering student, and law clerks to keep the Drone/UAS Practice Group stay current with produce supporting research for the DroneLawsBlog as well as our Survey of State Drone Laws.

Whether it is corporate work, privacy concerns, or you want to get a handle on what the FAA is doing and what your company is allowed to do, you will feel comfortable calling a lawyer at Antonelli Law.


Attorney Katie (“Kate”) D. Fletcher is Of Counsel to Antonelli Law’s Drone/UAS Practice Group. Fletcher is an attorney and 737 pilot with one of the world's largest airlines, with more than 10,000 hours of flight experience. She is Type-Rated in the Saab 340, Citation CE-500, DC-9, and Boeing 737, 757 and 767. Fletcher’s aviation experience includes traffic watch in the San Francisco Bay Area, Air Ambulance, flight instruction, and piloting major domestic and international-bound aircraft. She graduated from the University of Warwick with a B.Sc. (Hons) in Economics, and later attended law school at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She graduated cum laude with a J.D. and an L.L.M. in Taxation.

Attorney Mark Del Bianco is Special Counsel to Antonelli Law’s Drone/UAV Practice Group. Mr. Del Bianco has substantial federal administrative experience, having represented clients in rulemakings and enforcement proceedings (or court reviews) at the DOJ, ITC, FCC, FDA, CPSC, and NHTSA. He has litigation experience ranging from state trial courts to case briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court, and in recent years has litigated the constitutionality of state laws at the intersection of technology and privacy. He also provides transactional and regulatory assistance to a wide array of clients, including fiber networks, satellite service providers, business owners, application developers and cloud services providers. Prior to starting his own practice in 2003, Del Bianco was an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice and at both large and small firms in Washington D.C., including more than a decade at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP.

Firm principal Jeffrey Antonelli has been general counsel to technology companies and a litigator for more than 15 years. Jeffrey began flying radio controlled aircraft when he turned 40 (a childhood wish) which led to his following "drone" development including first-person viewing (FPV) flight and cinematography. Jeffrey leverages his experience in
business, litigation, intellectual property, insurance law, and employment law to help clients make their way through the exciting but perilous legal and FAA regulatory waters of drone/UAV law.

What Can a Drone Manufacturer or Distributor Get From Antonelli Law?

We can help protect your investment in UAS by:

- Lobbying at the state or federal level

- Preemption litigation
  • Challenging proposed regulations at agency level or in court
  • Filing suit in federal court to invalidate or circumscribe state or local laws
- Drafting template contracts
  • NDAs
  • Consulting agreements
  • Services agreements
- Develop privacy policies and implementation, including cloud services

- Intellectual property protection and litigation
  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Copyrights

What Can a Drone User Get From Antonelli Law?

- Defense of investigatory and enforcement actions
- Challenges to warrantless government use of drones to detect regulatory violations
- Challenging proposed regulations at agency level or in court
Analysis of state and local statutes, including federal preemption issues


"Whether we call them UASs, UAVs, or drones, these aircraft are an exciting new development in the aviation industry. But they also raise some serious safety and privacy concerns – that we need to address before the FAA licenses these vehicles for broad use in our national airspace."

- Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology

Laws Applicable to Drone/UAS

Traditional state laws of tort and privacy apply to drone use, but so will forthcoming FAA regulations on the commercial use of drones, also known as UAVs or UASs.

The doctrine of federal preemption will likely displace traditional laws when the FAA regulation is specific enough. Legal advice is needed for uncertainties such as : Would use of a drone by the Chicago Police Department to scan the lakefront area for gang activity violate the privacy rights of sunbathers? This may depend more than Illinois' law on drones, but on the forthcoming FAA sUAS regulations.

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Please Note: By viewing this website no attorney-client relationship is formed unless you and the firm agree upon and sign an attorney agreement or similar letter agreement. We are not able to act on your behalf or protect your legal interests until that formal agreement is signed. Consult a qualified attorney to obtain legal advice for your particular circumstances. No endorsement is implied to the information, product, or services that may be contained or referred to in the articles or videos linked to in this page or within this website. Illinois does not recognize attorney specialties; no specialties are implied for attorneys of Antonelli Law.



Jeffrey Antonelli quoted in Bloomberg Business: Drones & Insurance

Jeffrey Antonelli interviewed by WGN on Chicago Drone Ordinance

FAA Issues Fact Sheet to State and Local Governments (Preemption)

Antonelli Law is accepting clients wishing to submit FAA Petitions for Exemption under Section 333 and special airspace COAs. Contact firm principal Jeffrey Antonelli for more information at 312-201-8310.


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