As a remote pilot, the most important regulation you will follow while flying your drone has to do with the National Airspace System — specifically, understanding whether or not you’re in controlled or uncontrolled airspace.
In this article, we’ll be walking through airspace authorization, the LAANC system, and the differences in rules for hobbyists vs. FAA-licensed drone pilots.
In 2019 the FAA is reporting over 1.3 million registered drones, with the likelihood there could be as many as 40% more unregistered based on industry sales and DIYer’s, bringing the total to nearly 2 million UAVs in the United States alone. Compare that to the much lower count of 325,000 manned aircraft in the country and you can see how rapidly the industry is growing, and why the regulatory sector has had to move so fast to keep our airspace running smoothly.
2 million drones in the sky means a lot of activity to monitor! Fortunately, as of September 13th, 2018 the final installment of The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) went live allowing 288 air traffic control facilities and 470 airports the ability to communicate with drone pilots in real time.
The Purpose of LAANC
As previously mentioned the LAANC, or the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, was created as a means for the FAA to work more directly with the private drone sector to authorize and monitor the flights of remote pilots.
Prior to LAANC, drone operators needing airspace authorization for their flights in Class B, C, D, and some Class E airports would need to submit a request via the website FAADroneZone, which could take anywhere from a week to several months to receive authorization for a flight.
The system was inefficient at best, for both pilots and regulatory bodies, and with how rapidly drones are being registered and integrated into commercial industries the process needed streamlining.
Now, pilots have the exciting liberty to create a flight plan in controlled Class B, C, D, or Class E airspace and receive authorization for that flight the same day, often within a few minutes.
It is worth noting that, at the moment, LAANC is strictly for approving flights classified under Part 107 regulations and does not allow pilots to request operations that require further waivers, like flying at night.
In May 2019, the FAA announced new drone regulations for recreational pilots, stating that eventually, both commercial AND recreational pilots would be able to apply for controlled airspace authorization using LAANC.
Smart Software Integration
LAANC is powered by a small group of dedicated application providers that act as the medium between flight planning and approvals from the appropriate Air Traffic Control.
Using either the drone controller, your smartphone, tablet, or desktop PC you are able to submit a request to fly in controlled airspace, and often within minutes, the controlling body will be able to approve your flight or justifiably deny it.
Aside from the common rules surrounding airspace, the applications will also filter your request using your GPS location and determine if there are extenuating factors for the time you want to fly such as NOTAMS (Notices to airmen) or TFRs (Temporary Flight Restrictions). The applications are always updating so it will not be uncommon for you to be submitting a request and see your flight is automatically denied based on current holds in place.
There are several software options when it comes to utilizing the LAANC which we will outline below.
Authorization (Part 107) vs Notification (Hobbyist)
Are you flying for fun, or are you flying commercially?
You will notice on the interface of the dedicated LAANC applications that switching between Part 107 and Hobbyist filters will present different icons based on your location and intended flight.
Understanding the Gridded Numbers
In the photo below, we’ve selected a location to fly using our Part 107 certification, and when flying in the yellow outlined grid, our flight will be approved automatically when flying 100 feet AGL (above ground level) or below.
If you need to fly higher than 100 ft. in that part of the map, you’d still apply for authorization through LAANC.
Because you’re asking to fly over the UAS Facility Maps max gridded-altitude, your request may still be approved but would need coordination with the local airport and additional FAA safety analysis. This process typically takes 1-2 weeks, and it’s important to know that these situations are very much looked at on a case-by-case basis.
If you apply or authorization to fly your drone smack-dab off an LAX airport runway, odds are that’s not going to get approved in 1-2 weeks, probably at all without some serious back-and-forth and regulatory counsel.
It is also worth mentioning that in this example, the flight grid we selected immediately becomes 0 ft AGL one quadrant to the right. And one and two quadrants to the left, you’ll see max altitudes of 100 ft. AGL and then 300 ft. AGL.
In the 0 ft. AGL grid, you wouldn’t be able to get near-instant authorization through LAANC. But you’d still apply through that system, knowing that you’ll eventually be asked to provide more information.
Can Hobbyists Get Automatic Approvals?
In short, no. But soon!
Eventually, hobbyists will be able to use the LAANC system as Part 107 pilots do.
In the meantime, recreational flyers may continue to fly below 400 feet in uncontrolled Class G airspace without specific certification or operating authority from the FAA.
And until further notice, hobbyists are not allowed to fly in controlled airspace — they can only fly in certain “fixed sites” in controlled airspace throughout the country. The fixed sites (MS Excel) are listed online and will be routinely updated.
But eventually, hobbyists will be able to use the same LAANC system that FAA-certified drone pilots are able to use.
Leading LAANC Software For Fast Flight Authorizations
There are a handful of private companies that facilitate LAANC authorizations — and many of these companies offer web, mobile, or tablet applications that are great for airspace research and mission planning.
With the abundance of jobs that require quick scheduling within controlled airspace, being able to say yes to a project and get it approved the same day has changed everything.
We have chosen to mention three application companies that have been around the longest and will continue to improve as drone regulations adapt and change in the future. Some of which include features that can be used in industry-specific photogrammetry operations.
The images used in this article were captured via Airmap, and we were able to do so for free because the app doesn’t cost you anything.
Airmap is what we recommend any drone pilot starts out the LAANC process with because the app is simple, free, and will allow you to obtain authorization to get your drone where it needs to be. The maps built-in will give you a variety of must-know advisories, including:
- First responder activity within your area
- Boundaries of a National Park which are strictly off-limits for drones that have not received the appropriate, and very scrutinous waivers
- Controlled airspaces and all the associated radii
- AGL grids to get familiar with the most restricted airspace near you
Kittyhawk has been praised by drone professionals for its all-in-one utility capabilities. Beyond requesting flight authorization via LAANC, useful features include:
- Comprehensive VFR Sectional Charts for in-depth flight planning
- Real-time NOTAMS, TFRs and METARs you can view prior to submitting a flight plan which is unique to this app.
- Synchronization to the DJI app to keep track of flight logs, UAV performance, battery health and your entire fleet of drones.
Kittyhawk is an excellent choice if you’re running a drone operation with multiple team members by allowing you to customize flight restrictions and best practices under individual profiles. This includes automated flight restrictions on your drone fleet like flight ceilings, maximum distances from the pilot and no-fly zones. These settings will be applied automatically so your pilot can fly without having to worry about restrictions.
Sometimes there is no time to wait and see what a drone saw after the fact. Kittyhawk is built to provide live video stream for what a drone is seeing to team members. Complete with conference-call audio., this is a powerful tool for incident response, training and safety.
The company currently boast over 690,000 flights successfully logged through their flight planning and will continue to improve features as they compile the data.
Kittyhawk has both free and paid plans, with subscription tiers based on feature sets and which target serious drone operators, commercial teams, and large scale enterprise operations.
Perhaps one of the most notable aspects to the Skyward company is that they’re now owned by Verizon, the largest mobile line supplier in the US, which according to the engineers, has allowed for great leaps in their technology based on greater resources. Beyond excellent LAANC authorization, the distinguishing set of features used by Skyward has to do with Industry specific software settings, including:
- Construction & Engineering
- Public Safety
- Energy & Utilities
- Oil, Gas & Mining
- Media & Broadcast
Skyward’s aim is to provide guidance to any industry seeking to use drones for imaging, surveillance, or miscellaneous flight purposes while doing so in a safe and efficient manner. If you even want to try it, they offer demo packages to get you started.
The team has even begun consultations for pilots to determine the best way to achieve waivers that are outside of the LAANC system.
Get Started Today
Without question, the best application of your drone education is becoming familiar with the airspaces you intend on flying in. Beyond the airspace, what kind of additional challenges will come with your intended flight? Are there a lot of people who frequent the area? Is your line of sight obstructed by buildings and trees?
While the LAANC has revolutionized the ability to access locations for flight, it doesn’t make complex assignments any easier. If you feel nervous about flying your drone you are always welcome to look into our hands-on drone flight training in an area near you.