At Long Last, FAA Releases First Round of Airspace Authorization Maps

The FAA recently released its very first round of UAS Facility Maps.

For those of us who have been waiting for a smoother way to request airspace authorization, this is a huge deal.

The maps cover 268 airports nationwide, which includes about 40,000 square miles of airspace. 85% of the areas covered in the maps show specific areas and altitudes where drones may be authorized to fly safely.

The maps are the first step in rolling out the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), a system for drone traffic control that the FAA hopes to have fully online by the end of 2017.

Above is a screenshot we took of the map of the airspace near Nashville. You can see right away that the airspace is class E, which is restricted and requires airspace authorization. More importantly, you can see that the ceiling for flying is 0, which means that you probably won’t have any luck with that authorization request if that’s where you want to fly.

Here’s another example, taken from the FAA website, where you can see the ceiling heights grow as the area grids fan out from the airport:

FAA-airspace-maps

This first rollout is significant, and represents a noteworthy step toward greater transparency about the information that goes into approving and rejecting airspace authorization requests.

Want to see the maps? See the FAA’s UAS map of the U.S. hereTo dive into a specific region, just double click on any of the little dots that appear on the map to zoom in.

Why Is This Rollout Such a Big Deal?

The reason these maps are so important for commercial drone pilots is because they’re the first real tool pilots have to help them understand—and expedite—the airspace authorization process.

Up to this point, pilots have simply had to submit the authorization paperwork using the FAA’s Online Waiver Portal (which is confusingly named, since it receives both waiver requests and airspace authorization requests).

After pilots submit, they sit around and wait…sometimes for months. That is a really hard situation to be in if you’re running a small business.

But now, with the use of these maps, a pilot can immediately get insight into the likelihood of getting approval. As noted above, if you see that the ceiling for the area you want to fly in is 0, well, you probably shouldn’t waste your time submitting the authorization paperwork, or waste your client’s time waiting around to see if it gets approved.

And if you know if you need to fly above 100 feet for a certain project, again, you now know not to bother asking for the authorization if the area in question has a ceiling of 100.

It’s important to note that these maps do not represent a way to bypass the airspace authorization process. That is, you can’t simply look at the FAA UAS map, assess the airspace, and go fly.

“UAS Facility Maps show the maximum altitudes around airports where the FAA may authorize part 107 UAS operations without additional safety analysis.” – FAA

That being said, UAV pilots can certainly use the information provided in the maps with an expectation that a request informed by the information on the maps has a high likelihood of being approved, and also of being approved more quickly.

How Was the LAANC Program Created?

The FAA has rejected a massive 71 waiver requests and 854 airspace applications – The Drone Girl

And they’ve surely rejected a lot more since the article quoted above was first published back in October of 2016.

These rejections, and the delays pilots have experienced in the waiver and airspace authorization process, are a big deal for the FAA.

To address the problem, the FAA selected 12 companies to participate in a working group to try and find a solution. The end result was the creation by the FAA of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program.

In its final form, LAANC will allow an operator to plan a flight, submit that flight plan to the FAA, and receive automatic approval if the flight plan remains within the preselected airspace volumes. The FAA expects this automatic approval system to be live by the end of the year, but it’s possible operators won’t have to wait until then to take advantage of the new system. – Matt Fanelli, Senior Manager for Strategy at Skyward (one of the 12 companies that helped create the LAANC)

What’s Next?

More maps are expected to be released by the FAA over the next six months. Also, the FAA will soon support automated digital notifications and authorization based on the information in the maps—although how soon is not yet clear.

The grids that appear in the map will be updated in the same 56-day cycle that currently applies to other FAA airspace charts. Purportedly all facility maps will be published by October 31, 2017.

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