Imagine getting a call for a job to fly your drone to take pictures of a property for a realtor. You get the details and start looking into the mission only to find out that the property is in controlled airspace. For the last few years, this was a nightmare for many of us. We could submit the FAA request to fly in the airspace, and then we would wait, and wait, and wait, and wait while the FAA functions would perform their due diligence to assess the operation and associated risk mitigation. I had one request that took over nine months for class C airspace approval. We have all learned a lot since that request was submitted. Unfortunately many of us were not able to gain work in controlled airspace due to amount of time it took to review and approve. I don't know a realtor that could afford to wait 90 days or longer for a drone pilot to receive FAA authorization to fly in controlled airspace. THANKFULLY! This is changing. Drone pilots celebrate!
The FAA along with several key vendors are rolling out the long awaited beta test of the LAANC system (Low Altitude Airspace Notification Capability). Using the approved FAA vendors, a licensed drone pilot (a pilot with their FAA part 107 remote pilot certificate) can now submit their flight plans electronically. In real time they can have the drone flight approved to fly if it meets the necessary criteria. The LAANC system is still in beta, so not airports are live. The FAA also notes that airports may be added/removed throughout this testing. We have seen this in some of the tricky overlapping airspace airports such as in Texas.
I had a chance to use the new LAANC system by entering my flight details for class C controlled airspace using the AIRMAP app. My immediate assessment is that the flight entry was very simple. I've used Airmap before, so the entry was very straight forward. I immediately received an SMS message with approval notification of the flight. Very slick.
Here is a quick overview of the entry. Using the Airmap App, you will need to setup your account in order to submit drone flight plans for LAANC approval. When you are ready to schedule a flight, you select your location on the map. If the location is in controlled airspace, you will note the altitudes listed in each grid. See figure 1.
These altitudes represent the height that drone flights do not pose a risk to manned aircraft. In order to be approved, your drone flight must stay below these altitudes. You can see how the altitudes are lower near the airport where manned aircraft is departing and arriving at the airport. The grid altitude for the airport and runways including the adjacent areas are listed as zero altitude as the aircraft are flying very close to the ground as they approach to takeoff and land. It is not safe to operate a drone in these grids. There is a separate process on the FAA website to submit for flights in these zero altitude grids or for altitudes higher than what is listed on the grids.
To continue entry for a grid above zero altitude, you will need to enter your flight plan and details. See Figure 2.
As with any flight, it is critical to enter accurate details. If your drone flight altitude goes above the limit set for that grid, it probably will not get approved. I hope it goes without saying, but never fly above the approved altitudes or you could possibly endanger manned aircraft flight.
If you are entering your flight for a future date, you can select this under date & time. Recognize the altitude limits are subject to change based upon manned aircraft approaches and departure altitudes and directions. So a flight that gets approved today, may not get approved tomorrow based on any of these factors that could impact a drone safely operating in that area with manned aircraft.
Be sure to check your pilot and contact details for accuracy in case authorities need to contact the pilot for any reason or emergency.
The flight plan details, as shown in figure 3, continue to prompt you to select different choices in reference to:
1) Completing the preflight check
2) Maintaining visual line of site
3) Are anti-collision lights being used
4) Is the drone registered
5) Confirming that the pilot is a part 107 Certificated Pilot.
Once you select next at the bottom of the Airmap screen, the app takes you to the flight briefing screen.
See figure 4.
This screen provides a weather briefing and any rules or advisories you need to be aware of. In this drone flight planning example, the flight is in controlled class C airspace. Once the flight is submitted, you receive an acknowledgment that it is submitted.
In this example, my drone flight approval was instant. I was well under the altitude limits.
Almost instantly, I received an SMS message that confirmed my flight was approved per the flight details. The SMS also included the drone flight authorization number.
An example of this authorization message to pilot my drone in controlled airspace is in figure 5. The SMS message also includes a link to the FAA page for "Getting Started with part 107."
As always, it is the Remote Pilot in Command's responsibility to insure the flight operates within the FAA part 107 rules and regulations. It may be a good idea to refresh your knowledge by viewing the FAA rules page every once in a while. Having the LAANC system to provide real-time approval of drone flights in controlled airspace is a significant step forward in allowing the widespread integration and utilization of drones to save lives, save time, and reduce costs. So drone pilots everywhere - Celebrate!
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