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FAA seeks 'emergency' action on drones

The FAA has been swamped with requests from Part 107 drone pilots seeking to navigate controlled airspace, and reports of drone safety incidents have also surged. Believing that frustrated drone pilots are flying near airports without waiting for airspace authorization, the agency has sought “emergency” clearance to quickly implement electronic authorization.

The FAA has published hundreds of "grids" depicting the maximum allowable altitudes for unmanned aircraft operations near airports. Composite image made from FAA facility map screen shot and AOPA file photo.

In a Federal Register notice published Oct. 11, the FAA sought from the White House Office of Management and Budget authority to put electronic authorization of drone flights in controlled airspace on a fast track. The agency stated that with delays of up to 90 days for approvals, “non-compliant” operations have increased sharply, and the FAA now receives an average of more than 250 drone-related safety reports per month, and about 1,500 over a six-month period.

The FAA implemented Part 107 in August 2016 after a lengthy rulemaking process, and this year began publishing “grids” developed in collaboration with airport tower staff that depict the maximum safe and permissible altitudes for unmanned aircraft operations. The FAA published those maps through an online portal for delivering unmanned aircraft data to aviators, and has long planned to use the UAS maps to automate airspace authorization requests through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system. Remote pilots certificated under Part 107 who submit requests that comport with the published limitations through the current system can expect approval, the FAA has said.

The FAA had expected to take until the end of the year to implement the electronic authorization of LAANC, but the abundance of reported safety incidents and the backlog of airspace authorization requests received online created a logjam that the FAA hopes to clear by expediting the LAANC implementation.

“Due to the pressing safety consideration of reducing safety reports due to non-compliant UAS operations, the FAA cannot wait the normal 90 days of public comment,” the agency stated in the Federal Register notice Oct. 11. “Therefore, FAA is requesting (Office of Management and Budget) approval of this collection of information 7 days after publication of this Notice in the Federal Register. Upon OMB approval of its Emergency clearance request, FAA will follow the normal clearance procedures for the information collection associated with LAANC.”

The FAA said LAANC will enable the agency to grant “near-real time authorizations for the vast majority of operations,” and called immediate implementation of LAANC “vital to the safety of the National Airspace System because it would (1) encourage compliance with 14 CFR 107.41 by speeding up the time to process authorization requests (2) reduce distraction of controllers working in the Tower, and (3) increase public access and capacity of the system to grant authorizations.”

The FAA expects LAANC will reduce “non-compliant” operations by at least 30 percent, cutting the number of reported safety incidents by 450 in the coming six months.

The FAA notice was published a week after the NTSB confirmed the first midair collision involving a drone and a manned aircraft, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that was patrolling New York Harbor during the United Nations General Assembly in September. The helicopter landed safely despite main rotor damage, and a piece of the drone was recovered from inside the helicopter that led investigators to the operator with help from drone maker DJI.

The area where the Sept. 21 collision took place does not appear to be within an area where a drone flight could have been authorized, given the tightly controlled New York Class B airspace and the presence of flight restrictions to protect the U.N. General Assembly. The U.S. Army, NTSB, and FAA are all investigating, and no sanctions have been announced against the pilot, who is cooperating with the investigation, NTSB officials said.

The FAA expects to process 124,000 airspace authorization requests in 2017, increasing 35 percent per year in following years. From September 2016 through July, 20,566 authorization requests had been received, and more than 6,000 remain in the process. The FAA expects that backlog will exceed 25,000 requests within the coming six months in the absence of a more automated system.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Drone, FAA Information and Services, Training and Safety

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