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FAA expands drone authorization program

Remote pilots certificated under Part 107 will gain easier and more practical access to controlled airspace around hundreds of airports across the country beginning in April, the FAA announced on March 6 during the agency’s annual gathering of drone stakeholders in Baltimore.

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.

The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability was put on a fast track in October, in part because of FAA concern over “non-compliant” operations. Agency officials told attendees at the 2018 FAA UAS Symposium that more than 32,000 flight authorizations have been processed to date by a staff of 15 who handle requests filed by certificated remote pilots through an online portal (the system is not available to recreational drone users.)

Another 12,000 such requests are pending, FAA officials reported at the conference, and the backlog means that many requests (if not most) require 90 days or more to process. In practice, that has made access to controlled airspace more theoretical than practical for many remote pilots whose commercial clients usually have a tighter deadline.

LAANC, on the other hand, requires only a few minutes to authorize a flight that complies with defined limits. Remote pilots can use third-party software to submit requests to fly in Class B, C, D, or E airspace around airports where LAANC has been enabled, still a short list that is set to expand rapidly this year to 300 air traffic facilities serving about 500 airports around the country. Requests that comply with the altitude limits detailed in the grids published online in the FAA UAS facility maps can be approved in minutes through LAANC using third-party software, though LAANC is still only available at a small number of airports.

That will change starting April 30, when the FAA begins enabling LAANC airspace requests and approvals at airports in the South Central region, spreading around the country in the following months on a timetable published by the agency online. The final deployment is scheduled to begin in September.

The LAANC system provides speedy authorization and keeps air traffic control personnel informed of the time and location of approved drone flights. Each square in the grids surrounding airports (and depicted in the facility maps) indicates an altitude limit, ranging from zero to 400 feet. The limits were established by local air traffic facility managers, who set the limit to zero (no drone flights allowed) in squares in the immediate vicinity of airports, increasing to 200 or 400 feet (the altitude limit for flights conducted under Part 107) farther away.

Remote pilots can currently submit requests using AirMap and Skyward; the FAA also has approved LAANC participation by Project Wing, Google’s drone delivery and unmanned aircraft traffic management program that has conducted initial drone delivery tests in Australia. Rockwell Collins is also listed by the FAA as a LAANC participant, though, like Project Wing, Rockwell Collins is not yet producing a consumer-oriented product. A spokesperson said the firm has focused so far on larger customers and advanced missions, such as the beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) test flights conducted over certain BNSF Railway tracks in 2017.

Several other companies that produce drone management and operations software, such as Kittyhawk, also have applied to participate in LAANC, and the FAA said that additional firms may apply by May 16 to offer LAANC authorizations through their platforms.

LAANC is a key component of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management System being developed to facilitate safe integration of drones in the National Airspace System. The FAA expects implementation will reduce “non-compliant” operations by 30 percent.

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, Airspace, Airport

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