This guide last updated: Fall 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?
- Can’t I just contact the airport / air traffic controller directly to ask for authorization?
- What’s this I hear about an online portal and a 90-day wait-time?
- And what’s all this buzz about UAS facility maps and instant airspace authorization?
In this guide, we’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 with 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, and how can I use UAS Facility maps in my research?
Q: What is airspace authorization, and how is it different from an airspace waiver?
Q: Are airspace authorizations and airspace waivers different than getting a “Part 107 waiver?”
Q: What’s the proper way to request controlled airspace authorization?
Q: What if I need a Part 107 waiver AND 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.
That being said, the new FAA’s new UAS facility maps are going to radically alter how we research controlled airspace.
The UAS maps have not yet been released for the entire U.S., but it looks like the FAA is moving quickly to get them out. Many of them are already live, so it’s worth looking there first when you starting your airspace research.
What are the best apps / tools for researching airspace?
The FAA’s UAS facility maps are the most thorough and up-to-date source for airspace information. These maps are the same source the FAA references when making decisions about whether to approve an airspace authorization request, and contain all of the information you need when researching airspace.
However, at the writing of this article not all areas in the U.S. have been represented in the UAS facility maps currently available. The first subset of about 200 maps was released on April 27, 2017, and additional maps have been promised every 56 days following that release, with a total of 900 maps expected for release by late April of 2018.
We recommend starting your research on the existing UAS facility maps. If the airspace where you want to fly hasn’t yet been included on the maps, then you’ll want to keep reading to learn more about other apps and tools for conducting your research.
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 email@example.com
What is airspace authorization, and how is it different from an airspace waiver?
As an FAA-certified remote pilot under the Part 107 regulations, if you need to operate in Class B, C, D, or E airspace, you need to request airspace authorization or an airspace waiver, and get prior approval to operate in that airspace.
According to FAA.gov:
- “An airspace authorization is short term (up to 6 months) and grants access to a more limited operating area.
- An airspace waiver is longer term (6 months to 2 years) and grants access to a bigger operating area.”
Airspace waivers are strictly concerned with flying in controlled airspace, and should not be confused with Part 107 waivers. That being said, we have found little use of the phrase “airspace waiver” in the drone industry (except for on the FAA’s website, and a few other sources), which indicates that most people simply aren’t seeking permission to fly in restricted airspace for longer than 6 months.
Regarding airspace waivers, it’s important to note that FAA.gov states: “Airspace waivers require significant mitigations and may require a longer period of time for processing. See instructions for further guidance.”
So the bottom line is, if you want to fly in restricted airspace your best bet is to pursue an airspace authorization (for up to 6 months), and not an airspace waiver (for 6 months to 2 years).
Read the next section to learn about the difference between an airspace waiver and a Part 107 waiver.
Is this different than getting a “Part 107 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 until recently the FAA form to apply for them was 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. Now that the FAA has separated Part 107 waiver requests into their own distinct form, we anticipate seeing less rejections of this nature.
So what’s the difference?
Part 107 Waivers
To clarify, applying for a Part 107 waiver means that you would like to get permission to be exempt from existing Part 107 prohibitions and regulations, like not being allowed to fly at night, or not being allowed to operate beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS).
Daylight Operations waivers are getting approved more frequently than any other type. You can see the full list of Part 107 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.
Airspace Authorization / Airspace Waivers
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 E:
- 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, you’ll need to get permission.
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. After submitting the form the FAA “will provide a response in less than 90 days.”
Despite this official language on the FAA’s website, the actual response time has now shortened to more like 30 days according to what we’ve heard from other drone pilots, and read online. That being said, 30 days is the minimum amount of time you should give yourself when planning a flight, and it’s important to keep in mind that it could still take longer than 30 days.
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 Responsible Person:
This will usually just be you, but it doesn’t have to be. The Responsible Person is actually not required to hold a Remote Pilot Certificate, and can be the representative of an organization.
The Responsible Person you list is accountable for a list of responsibilities, which include maintaining records demonstrating compliance with FAA requirements; being accessible by the ATC; and maintaining a list of pilots and make / model of all aircraft involved in the operation. See the full list on pages 1 and 2 of this FAA instructions document.
The next section of the form has two open form fields: 1) Proposed location of operations, and 2) Description of your proposed operation. Below we’ve included the answers one of our students gave for those two sections to successfully gain permission to operate in Class C airspace, as well as notes on maximum altitude, center point, and radius:
Proposed location of operation:
The more specific you can be here, the better. Provide city, state, and specific identifying characteristics, including landmarks.
Here is the answer our student used in his successful application:
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.
Proposed location of operation—boundary inputs:
The fields above, which appear under the Proposed Location of Operation open form field, are used to give your operation a boundary in 3 dimensional space. For the first field, input the highest you propose to fly on your mission. Keep in mind that flights above 400 feet are prohibited (unless surveying a tower) and will require a Part 107 waiver.
Use the Latitude and Longitude fields to identify the center point of your mission. The center point does not necessarily have to be where you are starting your mission, since factors such as weather and terrain may make starting in the center of your proposed area of operation impractical.
THIS IS IMPORTANT: A little known—but crucial!—best practice is to use the center of the airport as the GPS location and to request a Wide Area Authorization for that airport’s entire controlled airspace. This is the clearest way to request the most amount of airspace around an airport possible.
Use the Radius drop down field to give your proposed mission a boundary. Imagine that the center point you input is the center of a circle, and then determine the farthest distance you will need to fly away from that point in any single direction. That distance will be your entry in Nautical Miles for the Radius field.
Description of your proposed operation:
It’s important to note that the instructions for this open form field ask not just for a description, but also for “justification that establishes how the operation can be safely conducted.”
Although FAA instructions for filling out the form state that this justification is only required for airspace waivers, and not airspace authorization, your best bet is to provide a clear safety justification for an airspace authorization request as well.
Here is the answer one of our students used for a successful application:
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 cell 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.
What if I need a Part 107 waiver AND airspace authorization?
If you are planning a flight that will require both a Part 107 waiver and airspace authorization—for example, night operations in Class B airspace—the order in which you get each is important.
“If you intend to use a non-airspace Part 107 waiver in controlled airspace (for example, night operations in Class B airspace), you must obtain your non-airspace waiver prior to requesting an airspace authorization or airspace waiver.”
So if you want to fly a mission that requires both a Part 107 waiver and airspace authorization, you must obtain your Part 107 waiver prior to requesting an airspace authorization or airspace waiver.
Since Part 107 waivers have historically been slow to process, you should prepare yourself for a long wait—especially since you’ll have to use the Part 107 waiver to then submit your airspace authorization request . . . and wait some more while that gets processed.
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 https://www.faa.gov/uas/request_waiver/request_operate_controlled_airspace/.
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?
It depends? Normally a couple of weeks to the full 80-90 days.
With the release in April, 2017 of UAS facility maps, the next step is automating approval using the airspace indicated in those maps. Right now when you submit your airspace authorization request, a person is manually taking the request and looking at a UAS facility map, then making a determination based in most cases exclusively on whether your request concerns restricted airspace.
The proposed automation will remove the middleman, and simply provide an immediate yes / no based on the location indicated. This new system is being developed as part of the LAANC (Low-Altitute Authorization and Notification Capability), and is being created in a partnership between the FAA and private companies like AirMap.
The system is expected to be operational in 2018, and will begin with Class E airspace. (AirMap recently announced a list of 50 airports where LAANC, i.e. instant, authorization would be available starting this fall.)
But until all of this becomes a reality, we still have to submit airspace authorization requests using the online portal, and wait and see.
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?
With AirMap’s announcement regarding the roll out of instant authorizations at 50 airports in the fall, it looks like we may well see the arrival of instant authorizations for much of U.S. airspace by the end of 2018.
We can also expect to see more UAS facility maps rolled out. If the FAA sticks to its proposed schedule, all 900 maps covering the entire United States should be available by April of 2018.
Instant authorizations are part of the LAANC, which will also include a means for drone hobbyists to notify air traffic control when they plan to fly within five miles of an airport.
In a few years, these new instant authorizations will most likely be incorporated into a larger Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system, which will enable the safe operation of drones in what are becoming more and more crowded skies.
According to AINonline:
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.