In recent months, regulations for airspace in the United States have changed significantly as the FAA works to manage low-altitude space in a meaningful way. Today, the FAA introduced their solution for recreational flights by expanding the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). This system re-opens a lot of airspace for hobbyists. We’ll discuss the new system, how to use LAANC, and what to expect as part of the FAA’s long-term plan.
A Brief History
Before May 17, 2019, a recreational pilot could fly most anywhere. Flights within 5 miles of any major airport required being in contact with the control tower of all of them. This may have been a reasonable solution years ago when it was put in place, but the number of drones and flights have significantly increased. The FAA estimates that “there are around 1.25 million drones distinctly identified as model aircraft” (source: FAA). For some airports, fielding the required notification calls from recreational pilots became overwhelming.
Much of the country is uncontrolled airspace at the surface, but a great many people live in and around the controlled airspace near airports. In May, recreational flights in controlled airspace became prohibited without authorization—and there was no longer any way to get it. Many pilots were understandably upset, but this was intended as a temporary measure. Now, the LAANC system (pronounced “lance”) is online for recreational flights. This system re-opens most of the airspace that was previously available by automating airspace authorizations. The FAA actually beat many industry experts’ expectations on how long it would take to get this system running.
Finding Good Airspace
If you’re looking for a place to fly, you can also use the facility maps provided on the FAA’s website to find airspace classifications. Pilots have used these maps for some time, but they are more technical in nature and a bit harder to read. Be aware that these maps won’t alert you of other hazards like temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), sporting events, and national parks that also have a big impact on where you can fly.
In the near future, KittyHawk will re-release the B4UFLY app. Developed in partnership with the FAA, The new version of B4UFLY is a complete overhaul by a new developer and provides much more accurate information. If you have used a previous version of the app, it is worth looking at again. The new version will include all of the advisories noted above and many others.
Using B4UFLY couldn’t be simpler. Open the app and it will detect your location if you allow it, or you can select a location by search or browsing the map. It will then load data from the FAA and let you know what advisories exist in your area. These advisories sometimes restrict your ability to fly. If you get a green “Good to go”, you’re usually clear to fly; and if you absolutely can’t fly under any circumstance, you’ll get a red “Do not fly”. When you get a yellow “Warning”, make sure you understand what restrictions are in place in the area. Much of the time, this warning means you need authorization. B4UFLY is now quick, easy to use, accurate, and doesn’t collect personally identifying information. However, as of this writing it won’t facilitate airspace authorizations.
You can also get airspace and advisory information from any of the LAANC provider apps listed below.
If you want to fly in controlled airspace, you’ll have to get authorization. Authorization is provided primarily through the LAANC system. In order to obtain it, you need to sign into a LAANC provider and set up your flight plan. The LAANC app communicates with the FAA to perform an automated approval. If you are already familiar with using LAANC commercially, this will be very similar.
Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability was developed by the FAA and drone industry corporations to communicate the locations of current drone flights with the FAA’s existing air traffic control system. It began deployment for commercial flights in April 2018. Through this system, air traffic controllers are notified of drone activity so they can coordinate manned flights safely.
The LAANC system breaks up controlled airspace into grids. Each grid area has a number assigned to it which represents the altitude above ground level that is considered “safe”. Flights below this ceiling can be automatically approved, and flights above the ceiling are sent to the FAA for further review. While pilots can request commercial authorization above the grid ceiling, recreational flights don’t have this option through LAANC. Effectively, the grid ceiling is a hard limit for recreational flight with this method.
How to Use LAANC
Most LAANC providers make their system available via a native app or website (both of which we’ll call an app). This makes a lot of sense since you’ll often want to get authorization from your phone right when you go out to fly. These apps include UASidekick, KittyHawk, and Airmap. In the future, other providers may come online. The FAA’s own Drone Zone website and the B4UFLY App may provide LAANC access as well.
Regardless of the app you select, the FAA requires basic information to be on file with each authorization request:
- Your name, address, and phone number
- Where you intend to fly (geographic location and altitude)
- When you intend to fly
Some personal information is required so that the FAA can contact you if your authorization changes. This can happen if, for example, a VIP schedules a visit to your area that triggers airspace restrictions. In this unlikely event, you would be notified that your authorization no longer applies.
The app you use will help you draw up a flight area. In the example of UASidekick, you can choose a center point and specify a radius for a circular area, draw a line to create a rectangle, or even drop individual points for a polygon. After you choose your maximum altitude and confirm details such as date and time, the entire flight plan gets sent to the FAA’s system for approval. If your flight meets all the criteria, you’ll get an automated approval within just a few moments.
UASidekick shared with us the process in their app. Here’s what that looks like.
Tips for using LAANC
You’ll almost always know whether you will get approval before you submit a request. For the best chance of getting approval, pay attention to these details:
- Fill out all required fields accurately. The FAA needs them on file in case it must contact you. Your authorization is invalid otherwise.
- Check the maps and see what the grid ceiling is in the area. You must stay below the published altitude to be authorized, so don’t request anything higher.
- Only request airspace you will actually use.
- If your flight area crosses grid lines, the lowest altitude of all the grids in the area applies to the entire flight.
- You may request multiple authorizations for the same time period. This is helpful if you want to fly different altitudes in different grid areas during the same flight.
Even with LAANC approval, you’re not necessarily cleared to fly anywhere you’d like. Be aware of local and state ordinances that apply restrictions outside of what the FAA controls. For example, airspace near correctional facilities is often declared off-limits. Your approval doesn’t give you right-of-way, either. No restrictions currently exist on the number of UAS flights that can be approved for an area at a given time—which is good news for races and fun fly events—but it also means there may be other authorized drones operating in the same area that you are.
Other regulations always apply to recreational flight. Currently, you must stay below 400ft above ground level in any airspace, give way to all manned aircraft, and have your registration number on any craft that weighs more than 0.55lbs (250g). The full list of regulations is published in an article in the Federal Register.
One benefit of the recent update was legalization of FPV. Previously, you were to maintain line-of-sight to the aircraft yourself, which prevented the use of FPV goggles. Now, it’s acceptable to have a spotter maintain sight of the craft while the operator flies FPV.
Fixed Flying Sites
The FAA allows recreational flights in certain fixed locations (excel) in controlled airspace without requiring use of LAANC. This list largely mirrors the Academy of Model Aeronautics’ registry of club sites and most of these sites require an AMA membership to fly at. These agreements should stay effective for another year or two, but it’s not clear whether they will be renewed.
What to Expect in the Future
There are still a few changes coming to how recreational pilots are allowed to fly. These are subject to change, but here’s the most current information available:
CBO Safety Guidelines
The FAA expects to recognize “Community-based organizations” (CBOs) such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics, Drone Users Group Network, or FPV Freedom Coalition, and require that flights are conducted within their safety guidelines. Most of these safety guidelines already mirror the regulations in place, so drastic changes are not expected.
Pilots will need to take and pass a knowledge test to be able to operate drones. It’s expected that community-based organizations will administer the test and retain records instead of the FAA. Pilots can expect the test to cover topics like how to prepare to fly, (e.g. check for wind at different elevations,) where you cannot fly, (e.g. not over people or sporting events,) and how to gain airspace authorization (e.g. using LAANC). The test is mostly being designed as an educational tool to ensure pilots understand the regulations and isn’t likely to “weed out” anyone as unsuitable to be a drone pilot.
No official date has been given for these changes to go into effect, but industry experts predict we’ll see them in 2020.
The changes passed down by the FAA do require a little extra planning on our part, but it’s important that we respect and follow them. When we do our part in keeping the national airspace safe for everyone, we also ensure that recreational flights are preserved for ourselves and the future.