Want to fly a drone in a specific area, but can’t because the drone is too close to an airport?
It is currently illegal for commercial drone pilots to fly in restricted airspace (which typically occurs within 5 miles of an airport) without permission, and getting approval had been a lengthy, paperwork-ridden process that could take months. That made situations like police monitoring crowds during a protest, electric companies inspecting a problem with a power line or first responders trying to find lost hikers impossible, should those drone flights occur near an airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration is taking note — and making it easier to get nearly-instant approval to fly drones near about 500 airports.
The FAA at the 2018 FAA UAS Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland today announced that it would expand its tests of its real-time approval processing program to 500 airports by the fall of this year.
The tests are a part of the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program, which began last November at just a handful of air traffic facilities. The LAANC program allowed drone operators to use an interface from one of four providers that were hand-picked by the FAA — AirMap, Project Wing (an entity of X, formerly known as Google), Rockwell Collins and Skyward — to request approval to fly in restricted airspace. Operators would then receive approval almost instantly.
The expansion will begin in April, with the FAA releasing a new region each month. Here is the order of when each region will get the LAANC program:
- April 30: South Central USA
- May 24: Western North USA
- June 21: Western South USA
- July 19: Eastern South USA
- August 16: Eastern North USA
- September 13: Central North USA
The airspace authorization will be rolled out to nearly 300 air traffic control facilities, which collectively represent about 500 airports across the U.S. That means 78,000 miles of airspace will be opened up to commercial drone operations once the program is fully rolled out.
The FAA today also announced that it is accepting applications for other companies to become a LAANC service provider. That could ease up concerns that the ability for private companies to control the airspace is becoming an “ole boys club.”
Some industry players feared that the FAA selecting just 4 companies to provide such a service with no clear criteria of how to get chosen was a threat to other companies, particular small startups with minimal resources.
“Getting exclusive access to what is essentially a national resource doesn’t seem like a fair gig at all,” said Joshua Ziering, founder of Kittyhawk, a drone-operations platform similar to Skyward in a past interview with The Drone Girl. “With this, the FAA is essentially picking winners in the private industry.”
And it seems the industry still fears that the process for companies to get involved in the program as a service provider has not gotten any more fair.
Let’s talk about the bid process? https://t.co/ut8ruLGhNE
— sUAS News (@sUASnews) March 6, 2018
— sUAS News (@sUASnews) March 6, 2018
Others have worried about what happens if the companies that do have the authority to grant airspace permissions go out of business.
1st Question – "It seems like the airspace has been privatized to two companies that are start ups. What happens if they go out of business?"
Jay Merkle, FAA – "Its not privatized. We setup an initial test with 5 companies. We're opening up to many more April 15th."
— Kittyhawk (@kittyhawkio) March 6, 2018
But aside from the concerns around who gets chosen to be a part of the “old boys club,” the industry seems excited about the prospect of making it easier to fly drones in formerly restricted airspace.
— Pierce Aerospace (@pierceaerospace) March 6, 2018
“One of the great things for us about #LAANC has been all the positive feedback on social media…5 companies participating now, more to be added April 15th.” Jay Merkle Deputy VP, Program Management Org, @FAANews Air Traffic Org. #UAS2018 #FlySafe @AUVSI #drones pic.twitter.com/wj3etiYXTy
— SkyWatch.AI (@SkyWatchAI) March 6, 2018
Excited that the #LAANC program is being rolled out to the rest of the country. Only disappointment is my region is getting it August 16, potentially leaving only ~2 months of flight time before snow. https://t.co/ts6ZSFcKYN #UAV
— Justin Cole, GISP (@JustinColeGIS) March 6, 2018