This guide last updated: Summer 2017
Some of the most common questions we get from our students studying to pass their FAA Aeronautical Knowledge Test for a commercial Remote Pilot Certificate have to do with controlled airspace:
- What tools should I use to conduct airspace research?
- I’m using the B4UFLY app…is that a good app to be using?
- Can you help me understand whether or not I’m in controlled vs. uncontrolled airspace?
- What’s this I hear about an online portal and a 90-day wait-time?
- Can’t I just contact the airport / air traffic controller directly to ask for authorization?
Truth is, of the five bullet points above, only the third one has a clear yes / no answer. How about that?
In this guide, I’ll help you understand how to request airspace authorization to operate in controlled airspace. Since this guide is written for both drone pilots who are interested or actively preparing for their FAA Aeronautical Knowledge Test AND drone pilots who already have their Remote Pilot Certificate and are trying to make sense of next steps, we’ll start at the basics.
We’ll teach you what controlled airspace is, how airspace authorizations are different than waivers, how long airspace authorization takes, how to properly ask for airspace authorization so you’re not stuck waiting, and some juicy details about how the existing process is flawed, and what’s being done to improve it.
So, without further ado, let’s get into the questions.
How a Drone Pilot Should Request Controlled Airspace Authorization
Q: What is a Sectional Aeronautical Chart?
Q: How can I tell if airspace is controlled or uncontrolled?
Q: What are the best apps / tools for researching airspace?
Q: What is airspace authorization?
Q: Is this different than getting a “waiver?”
Q: What’s the proper way to request controlled airspace authorization?
Q: I heard I could just contact the airport / air traffic control directly…isn’t that faster?
Q: How long do I need to wait for approval?
Q: What does getting airspace authorization look like?
Q: What does the future hold?
What is a Sectional Aeronautical Chart?
The Sectional Aeronautical Chart is the FAA’s official source of data when it comes to topographical features that are important to pilots operating in the National Airspace System (NAS).
Often just called a Sectional or Sectional Chart, these maps are updated every 6 months and show things like terrain elevations, airports, radio frequencies, latitude & longitude, and airspace classes.
Nashville’s (BNA) Class C Airport. The innermost magenta circle that surrounds the airport denotes controlled airspace from the surface up to 4,600 ft. mean sea level (MSL).
It’s the last item of interest, airspace classes, that we’ll be discussing in this guide.
How can I tell if airspace is controlled or uncontrolled?
As a student drone pilot is going through his or her studies, learning how to read and to interpret airspace on a Sectional Aeronautical Chart is an absolute must. Our students report seeing a disproportionate chunk of test questions (up to 30-40%) having to do with Sectionals, mostly knowing how to identify airspace classes, whether you can or can’t fly, and the ceiling and floor altitudes of those areas.
Needless to say, if you haven’t already been exposed to these charts, you will soon enough.
We have an entire lecture on this within our online Part 107 test prep course, and frankly it’s where our students spend the most time studying. Looking at these charts can be super intimidating at first, but after going through a handful of examples and understanding the different tools that are out there for you to research this stuff, it gets a lot more approachable / easier to do airspace research.
It’s all based on colors. If you’re flying into blue or magenta solid or dotted lines, that’s where you really need to start paying attention.
Check out this portion of the Sectional Aeronautical Chart legend, found on page 13 of the testing supplement that remote pilots need to reference during the FAA’s Aeronautical Knowledge Test. This shows you what colors match up with what airspace classes.
What are the best apps / tools for researching airspace?
While you can buy a printed-out version of a Sectional Chart to hang on your wall from a website like My Pilot Store, most drone pilots are using apps on their computer, tablet, or phone to conduct airspace research.
Companies like VFRMap and SkyVector offer free, digitized Sectional Charts, allowing you to zoom in and out and click into airports to get more detailed information. It’s a great way to quickly scan the major airspace considerations of a particular latitude / longitude.
There’s also AirMap, another free tool which I like, because you can plug in an actual address. I’ve used Skyward as well, but that’s more of a flight logging and operations management tool. Same with Flyte and Kittyhawk, both of which use AirMap’s raw data to power their own airspace research tools within their greater flight operations management platforms.
Should I use the B4UFLY app?
Oof, I get this question a lot. Short answer? No, not if you’re operating commercially. It’s kind of ironic that this is the “official” FAA app, and that I’m telling you not to use it. But the reality is that while the FAA might be great at regulating airspace, the B4UFLY app was originally built for hobbyists, not professionals, and it’s simply not a great airspace research tool for certified remote pilots operating under the Part 107 rules, certainly not when compared to the aforementioned tools. It’s not as intuitive, and the additional questions you might have when conducting airspace research can be hard to answer within just their app.
Finally, there are a number of apps I’m not mentioning here like ForeFlight that our students are using. If you’re gung-ho about an app / tool that’s not mentioned in this answer, please shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
What is airspace authorization?
As an FAA-certified remote pilot under the Part 107 regulations, if you need to operate in Class B, C, D, or lateral E-at-surface airspace, you need to request airspace authorization and to get prior approval to operate in that airspace.
Is this different than getting a “waiver?”
Yes, and this is an important distinction.
The terms “waiver” and “airspace authorization” are often used in the same sentence, and it can seem like they are the exact same thing (the confusion is understandable, in part because the FAA form to apply for them is the exact same form with two different check boxes).
In fact, many people get their application for one or the other rejected because they don’t properly understand which is which (we get emails about this sometimes, and, trust me, we feel your pain—why not just have two separate forms?).
So what’s the difference?
To clarify, applying for a waiver means that you would like to get permission to be exempt from existing regulations, like not being allowed to fly at night, or not being allowed to operate beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS).
Yes, you can technically apply for a waiver to be exempt from needing permission to fly in controlled airspace, but those requests are getting approved very rarely, mostly for Class D airspace. It’s a different “ask” than airspace authorization and not usually appropriate for airspace authorization. That said, Daylight Operations waivers are getting approved frequently. You can see the full list of waivers that have been approved over here.
So if you want permission to fly over people from 3-4pm on a specific day, or if you’d like to do one single BVLOS flight for an inspection, or if you’d like to fly at night so you can do an amazing drone light show as a backdrop to Lady Gaga rocking down the house (ok, so those drones weren’t flying live, but you get the idea), you can apply for a waiver that will temporarily exempt you from the Part 107 requirements.
By the way, those of you wondering whether or not it’s possible to fly drones over people, yes, technically it is. Here’s an email we got from one of our industry contacts who successfully received a waiver to do so:
Our waiver was obtained by reaching out directly to the regional director for the FAA where the shoot was taking place about 6 months prior. There were concerns with all of the changes coming down the pipeline of what would and wouldn’t be allowed. Since this particular project, which was for a major studio, had a very key shot that they wanted and due to certain limitations a full size helicopter wasn’t an option. When we contacted the FAA, we expressed that we needed a very small window (about 6 hours) and that everyone we would be flying over would sign a release, would have proper medical crew present in case of an accident, and that we would have our heavy lift equipped with a parachute system. We even did a demonstration of the parachute system for a representative of the FAA. There were months of back and forth discussing everything, and we were very specific about what were doing, what steps we would (and did) take to operate as safely as possible. The biggest thing about getting any type of waiver (or authorization) is to just follow the steps, always operate with the highest concern for safety and always follow regulations. The best way we can show the FAA and everyone who is worried about commercial UAS operation is show that we can be good pilots that have a clean by the book operation. Be respectful of the government representatives that you work with and communicate with. Understand that if your waiver gets turned down, they probably have a good reason for turning it down.
Requesting airspace authorization, on the other hand, means that you are asking to operate / fly in controlled airspace, or for drone pilots, Class B, C, D, or lateral E-at-surface:
- Class B airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 10,000 feet mean-sea-level (MSL) surrounding the nation’s busiest airports in terms of airport operations or passenger enplanements. You can think of the “B” in Class B airspace as standing for “big city” airports.
- Class C airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 4,000 feet above the airport elevation (AGL) (charted in MSL) surrounding those airports that have an operational control tower, are serviced by a radar approach control, and have a certain number of instrument flight rules (IFR) operations or passenger enplanements. You can think of the “C” in Class C airspace as standing for “cities.” So not the big cities of Class B airspace, but still sizable city airports.
- Class D airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 2,500 feet AGL (charted in MSL) surrounding those airports that have an operational control tower. Small city airports with control towers are usually designated as Class D airspace. You can associate the “D” in Class D airspace with “diminutive” or “dime-sized.”
- Class E airspace almost always has one of four lower limits: the surface, 700 feet AGL, 1,200 feet AGL or, in some sparsely populated areas, 14,500 feet MSL. Most of the country has a Class E airspace lower limit of 700 feet AGL and/or 1,200 feet AGL. The upper limit of Class E airspace is up to but not including 18,000 feet MSL, or when Class E airspace runs into the upside-down wedding cake airspace of Class B or Class C. For a drone pilot, if you’d like to operate in Class E airspace at surface, you’ll need to get permission. But if you’re entering Class E airspace vertically, like if you were surveying the topmost part of a large tower, and going over the tower, which remember you’re allowed to do up to 400 ft. above the topmost part of the tower, if that puts you into Class E airspace, you’re not required to get permission to do that ahead of time. Interesting, right?
What’s the proper way to request controlled airspace authorization?
According to the FAA, you should fill out their online airspace authorization form over here. There’s a reason I wrote “according to the FAA” which we’ll dive into in the next question, but for now let’s assume you’re going through the formal, published process of filling out the online form.
Make sure to read the instructions and to fill out the form correctly, or you either won’t hear back from the FAA or will be denied a request and will have to start over. Sally French of the Drone Girl reported a little while back that the FAA had rejected more waiver requests than it has approved:
“The Federal Aviation Administration this week announced it has issued 36 Part 107 waivers to drone operators since it began issuing Part 107 waivers and airspace authorizations on Aug. 29. The FAA has also approved 81 authorizations for flights in Class D and E airspace…The FAA has rejected a massive 71 waiver requests and 854 airspace applications.”
So how should you fill the form out?
The form has two open form fields, proposed area of operations, and description of your proposed operation. Here’s how one of our students filled out those sections to successfully gain permission to operate in Class C airspace:
Proposed area of operations:
Project center point is intersection of ______________. Nearest street address is ______________. We intend to fly over the ______________ to capture photos and video for construction progress monitoring of the road/rail separation project. Flight will focus on bridge construction near this project center point as well as the railroad tracks affected by this project.
Description of your proposed operation:
I intend to obtain site photographs/video of the construction progression at this location which was designed by COMPANY. The sUAS described within will be configured to limit vertical AGL altitude to 200ft and horizontal travel will remain within VLOS. We intend to utilize multiple launch points at this location to ensure the sUAS remains within VLOS. Aside from requesting to fly within this Class C airspace, we will comply with all other Part 107 regulations. In addition to complying with part 107, we intend to have a 2 man crew comprised of both a PIC & a designated VO to alert the PIC of any potential aircraft entering the vicinity. ATC can reach either of us if needed via our cell number provided in this request. PIC will also post a NOTAM via www.1800wxbrief.com, a minimum of 24-hour advance notice of this flight to inform pilots and ATC of specifics of the flight which will appear on sectional VFRs for any interested parties. We feel this request will benefit our project by allowing us the freedom to operate safely and as needed in this Class C airspace.
And here’s how another student adapted their paperwork for their specific request of Class D airspace authorization.
Proposed area of operations:
We request that we are able to fly in the Class D airspace around Sioux Gateway Airport (SUX), Sioux City, Iowa.
The airport coordinates are:
42-24-09.4000N / 096-23-03.7000W
42-24.156667N / 096-23.061667W
42.4026111 / -96.3843611
We intend to capture photos and video for clients who have property within the Class D airspace and have requested that we provide photos and videos of their property for various purposes such as marketing, construction and/or inspection. We agree that no flights will take place within 1 mile of the airport coordinates.
Description of your proposed operation:
We intend to obtain site photographs/video of various locations as requested by our clients during the upcoming summer months where our local weather permits the safe operation of our sUAS. The sUAS described within will be configured to limit vertical AGL altitude to 200ft and horizontal travel will remain within VLOS. We will ensure the sUAS remains within VLOS. Aside from requesting to fly within this Class D airspace, we will comply with all other Part 107 regulations. In addition to complying with part 107, we intend to have a 2 person crew comprised of both a PIC & a designated VO to alert the PIC of any potential aircraft entering the vicinity. We will give way to all aircraft and will be especially aware of our distance from runway approaches. ATC can reach us if needed via our cell number provided in this request. PIC will also provide a minimum of 24-hour advance notice of this flight to ATC of specifics of the flight: location, anticipated take-off time, anticipated end of operation, and current cel phone numbers of PIC and VO. PIC will also provide notice at the actual time of launch and landing of each flight to ATC if they so desire. We feel this request will benefit our project by allowing us the freedom to operate safely and as needed in this Class D airspace. The majority of the flights we anticipate will fall near the outer limits of the airspace.
I heard I could just contact the airport / air traffic control directly…isn’t that faster?
Here’s where it gets interesting and where I should remind you that I’m not an aviation attorney.
But there’s what the FAA says, and then how the existing process has unfortunately fostered a culture of non-compliance where different things are happening out in the field / on the ground.
Given how unpredictable and non-transparent the airspace authorization is, some drone pilots have taken to going around the FAA and simply calling Air Traffic Control (ATC) or the airport directly.
Of course, the FAA has been clear that they don’t want you doing it.
“The only authorized way for you to receive clearance to operate in Class Bravo, Charlie, and Delta or within that lateral boundaries of Class E to the surface is to use the online portal. If you call ATC directly, they should be telling you that. I am certainly telling you that from flight standards.”
– Kevin Morris, FAA (via DroneLawPro)
And even on the FAA’s website, they state their position quite clearly:
How do I request permission from Air Traffic Control to operate in Class B, C, D, or E airspace? Is there a way to request permission electronically?
You can request airspace authorization through an online web portal available at www.faa.gov/uas/request_waiver.
Can I contact my local air traffic control tower or facility directly to request airspace permission?
No. All airspace permission requests must be made through the online portal.
Despite the FAA’s position, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to frustrated drone pilots who wait for weeks and weeks and weeks only to be told they can’t fly. Vic Moss does a phenomenal job laying out the brewing civil disobedience movement and situation in this article.
How long do I need to wait for approval?
If you get the right person on the phone / email at the airport or tower, it can be instant. If you fill out the online form, it can be as quick as 2-3 weeks for certain types of requests, though you may find yourself waiting up to 90 days for others.
Here’s a great thread on our community forum where both Drone Pilot Ground School students and our wider UAV Coach community share their specific experiences: FAA Airspace Authorization & Waiver Experiences / Notes
What does getting airspace authorization look like?
Here’s a real-world example of Class C Airspace Authorization paperwork, issued directly from the FAA.
What does the future hold?
The FAA is not ignorant of the non-compliance and of the fact that airspace authorization hurdles may be providing a negative incentive for drone pilots to operate outside their procedures.
Rumors have been flying around (see what we did there?) about grid maps that show you where an sUAS is able to fly in regards to controlled airspace. Within each map there is a square with a number, which represents the highest elevation a drone can fly in that location.
Clearly, these maps could really help make fast-tracking airspace authorizations a reality.
And these maps will most likely end up being used in a more streamlined, app-based application process. According to AINonline, which published the text below shortly after the 2017 FAA Symposium took place outside of Washington D.C.:
Under an initiative called the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), the FAA has developed maps with pre-approved flight zones and maximum altitudes for operating drones near airports. The agency expects to activate a prototype LAANC system by the end of the year, executives said March 27, during the FAA UAS Symposium in Reston, Virginia.
Once operational, the system will automate the FAA’s process of granting waivers and authorizations to commercial drone operators seeking to fly in controlled airspace, a process that can now take up to 90 days. LAANC will also provide a means for drone hobbyists to notify air traffic control when they plan to fly within five miles of an airport, a requirement expressed by Congress in 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation.
The LAANC system is considered a precursor to the comprehensive UTM (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management) system a NASA-led team is developing for transfer to the FAA by 2019. “The current process for meeting authorization and notification requirements of existing rules is manually intensive and therefore costly,” the FAA states in a draft LAANC concept of operations document released in February. “The FAA is seeking to close the gap of manual versus automated data transfer and authorizations by defining and establishing a technological solution that will allow for data exchange between operators and ATC.”
So that’s where things are headed.
Long story short? It used to be a LOT more difficult to get these authorizations in general, but there’s still a ways to go before airspace authorizations become less of an administrative headache.