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Automated airspace authorization has begun

Two firms approved to handle requests

The FAA has begun issuing airspace authorizations for drone flights near airports through a new, automated system that allows such operations to be approved without human intervention provided they comply with predefined limits established by air traffic controllers. Two companies were chosen to handle the first airspace requests from drone pilots as the system began testing in October at a handful of airports.

Composite image made from FAA facility map screen shot and AOPA file photo.

Competitors groused that the FAA is “picking winners,” while a utility company in San Jose, California, staked a claim as the first to receive automated airspace access.

The FAA has activated the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC, pronounced “lance”) at four of the first 50 airports slated to be part of a prototype evaluation, with a few more expected to follow in the coming weeks. A national beta test launch is planned in 2018.

Tower managers across the country have defined the allowable limits of drone flights near their airports, producing charts that are divided into grid squares, with a maximum allowable altitude for each square. The FAA began publishing those charts earlier this year, and continues to add to the online database.

Drone pilots who request flights via the LAANC system that remain within those limits can receive approval within minutes, rather than months, since there is no need for human attention to each request at the FAA level. As of Oct. 30, the agency’s online list of airports where LAANC is active included Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Covington, Kentucky; Lincoln Airport in Lincoln, Nebraska; Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nevada; and Norman Y. Mineta-San Jose International Airport in San Jose.

SunPower Corp. of San Jose claimed in an Oct. 30 press release to be the first to use it, though social media posts by various parties suggested that more than a few had tried LAANC. Long delays involved in securing airspace authorization, along with competition from drone operators who fly outside the rules and undercut the prices charged by lawful operators, are a frequent topic of complaint in various online forums. 

The arrival of LAANC, even in a somewhat small-scale form, capped a busy month of drone-related developments, including the FAA’s notice published Oct. 11 in the Federal Register that the agency will seek “emergency” clearance to implement LAANC, in part because the agency also believes many operators are flying without permission due to the long delays involved in seeking authorization under Part 107 through the web-based request system.

Drone pilots who want to participate will need software from one of two companies: AirMap or Skyward, a drone services company acquired by Verizon in February.

At least one competitor had pointed criticisms of the exclusion of other vendors, sparking a tit-for-tat discussion in social media and online drone publications. The FAA, meanwhile, noted that AirMap and Skyward have “completed the technical steps required and have entered into agreement with the FAA to provide LAANC services,” and noted that the list of approved vendors will be updated when other vendors are approved.

While LAANC is not expected to be implemented more broadly until 2018, airspace authorizations and waivers of other Part 107 requirements can still be obtained through the current online system, at least for those with missions that can wait up to 90 days for approval.

There is another way to avoid that kind of delay, though it is more complicated than authorizations for single flights: Boston’s Daedalus Drone Services recently announced securing an airspace waiver that allows the company to conduct unmanned aircraft operations within Boston’s Class B airspace on demand. That effort required "months," the company noted, but it also eliminates the need for mission-specific authorizations.

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

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