Recreational as well as commercial drone pilots have clearance to fly within the class G airspace (below 400 ft) away from airports. Drone pilots may not need additional permissions for flight within this boundary except when there is an altitude cap. However, remote pilots, who need to fly their UAVs above 400 ft or in controlled airspace below 400 ft, require clearance from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability or LAANC is a system that facilitates communication between drones and FAA’s Air Traffic Control (ATC).
What is LAANC?
At present, there are over 1.5 million registered drones in the US. The drone industry could potentially triple in size by 2023 as predicted by an FAA report. Monitoring millions of drones in the sky is not only extremely challenging but also dangerous if left unregulated. Therefore, the FAA introduced the LAANC system so that ATC can communicate with drone pilots in real-time. The LAANC communication system is integrated with most of the FAA-approved UAS service providers. A drone pilot can apply and receive an airspace authorization from ATC within the automated app of the UAS service provider.
Prior to the introduction of this system, if a drone pilot needed to operate in any other airspace apart from class G, they would have to submit an authorization request through the FAADroneZone website. This authorization process could take several weeks to be completed making it highly inefficient. With LAANC, drone pilots (commercial and hobbyists) can create flight plans in controlled airspace and get authorization in a matter of minutes. However, only those flights are approved that follow Part 107 regulations without any waiver certificates.
How does it work?
The LAANC system is integrated with the mobile/web applications of the FAA-approved UAS service providers. A drone pilot can submit their request to fly in controlled airspace through their preferred application on their mobile, tablet, drone controller, or a desktop. Once the request is submitted, FAA’s Air Traffic Control towers analyze the flight and telemetry data from the UAS service provider and then grant or deny the authorization within a few minutes.
However, some times the request can be straight out denied based on several factors. Factors like geographical location, NOTAM (Notice to Airmen), TFRs (Temporary Flight Restrictions), can barre a pilot from conducting his/her operation inside controlled airspace.
Identifying controlled airspace
While using a UAS app, airspace can look appear entirely different from standard VFR charts used by manned pilots. In mobile and web applications, airspace is denoted in a grid pattern marked with boundaries. Each grid has a number denoted to it. This number represents the altitude up to which a drone can fly. Beyond that altitude, you would have to apply for airspace authorization through LAANC.
In the above-gridded map, the grid selected for flying is marked in yellow. The number ‘100’ means that a drone can only fly up to an altitude of 100 ft in that marked area. Below 100 ft, the drone pilot is given automatic authorization. As the notice states, anything above 100 ft falls in Class D airspace and would require FAA authorization.
If you look carefully, the grid to the right of the marking denotes the number ‘50’. This means that the max altitude in that grid is 50 ft. Similarly, the grids with the numbers ‘0’ mean they are strictly controlled airspace. One can apply for authorization but it would not be instantaneous like the rest. These controlled airspaces may simply fall under different classes, be in the way of emergency responders, airports, etc, and thus, are not open. A drone pilot can apply for authorization after creating a flight plan of the area he/she wants to fly in.
Additionally, if a pilot wants to fly above the altitude cap of 400 ft in any of the UAS Facility Maps, they would have to submit a ‘further co-ordination request’. The approval of this request may take upwards of 90 days as it entails a longer and more detail-oriented process. This allowance is available to Part 107 certified pilots only.
Approved UAS service providers for LAANC
Given below is a list of UAS service providers that have been approved by the FAA and have integrated the LAANC system in their applications. Using any of the below-mentioned platforms, a drone pilot can apply for LAANC authorization: