Skyward recently released a major update to Skyward’s drone airspace intelligence map with some significant new features. Personally, I’m impressed with how the map looks—not to mention how smooth and intuitive it is to use.

I took the chance to ask Jonathan Natiuk (aka Natty), Skyward’s Creative Director and the lead designer behind the new airspace, what challenges our engineering and product teams set out to solve by redesigning the map. Here’s what he had to say:

Question: What was the biggest reason for the redesign of the drone airspace intelligence map?

The number one challenge to solve was: What is the most elegant—the most simple and clear—way to answer the question, “Can I fly here?” We assigned the possible answers to that question into four outcomes.

  1. Yes, no action needed
  2. Yes, with access available through Skyward
  3. Maybe, with action required outside of Skyward
  4. Most likely not, unless you get permission which could be very difficult to obtain

That’s what led us to create the access-based color scheme—we intentionally assigned colors based on those four outcomes. Just assigning a color to each type of airspace alone isn’t always clear. For example, controlled airspace with LAANC enabled allows for very different access than controlled airspace without LAANC. We wanted users to see that at first glance. The color scheme allows users to solve the “Can I fly here?” question very quickly. For LAANC, I know right away if it’s available and at what altitude.

Skyward Drone Airspace Map with LAANC grids

The second question to ask is, “Should I fly here?” There might not be any regulations against flying in a particular area, but companies often have standards that are more restrictive than the law. Maybe company policy requires you to close walking paths before you fly over an area. Or, maybe your operation will bring you near major power lines. Now, on the map, you can see those obstacles and make a more informed decision given the hazards around you. You’ll know ahead of time if you might need to bring an extra visual observer, or if you’ll need to post signage to restrict access to the flight area.

Skyward Drone Airspace Map with Transmission Lines

Giving the user as much context as possible from trusted data sources is key for making those choices. We want to help pilots know what conditions they might be dealing with in the field before they arrive on site so they can plan accordingly and take necessary precautions.

Question: What design challenges did you have to overcome?

We designed the new airspace map for what effectively amounts to limitless possibilities. The user has total control of the view—zoom level, pitch (the 3D angle), orientation, and their choice of three basemaps: dark view, satellite, and terrain.

The question was, how can we design airspace information that works well for all of those options?

Skyward drone airspace map with Terrain, Satellite and Dark views

That’s where the principle of dynamic zoom came in. When you’re zoomed out, you get only the information you’d want from a 30,000 foot view, like airspace zones designated by color, identification of airports and runways, and a hint of the basic LAANC grids.

Come in a little closer and you get more detail: clear delineation of controlled airspace, with LAANC altitudes and restricted or disabled zones.

Skyward drone airspace map LAANC altitudes

If you zoom in close, you get all sorts of information for planning flight operations. That’s things like major electrical lines, walking paths, buildings, and vertical objects like towers or antennas. All of this happens without having to toggle on and off various layers. That was actually a design goal: that the user shouldn’t feel the need to turn things off just to clearly see the features of the map. 

My favorite outcome, I think, is how the color fades off as you’re really close in. I’ve always said that when everything is tinted red, nothing is tinted red. So if you’re in satellite view over a field, how do you know if it’s slightly red because of the ground color or because it’s a restricted area? We wanted to make that contrast clear. We dynamically change the red airspace to slashed red lines as you move in closer. Now you can have confidence in regards to the most sensitive areas no matter how close you’re looking.

Skyward drone airspace map Restricted Washington DC airspace

I feel we got to a very solid outcome when solving these challenges. Dynamic zoom puts the information front and center, whether that’s broad airspace information from far out or ground obstacles up close. And there’s never too much information to handle.

Question: How was the design implemented?

Once I settled on how I wanted to solve the problem visually, there was still the reality of how to accomplish that with real data. The design team did a lot of working directly with engineering on what data was available, what could be generated or inferred from existing data, and what new data we needed. The backend team performed some amazing work to make this happen, and to make the user experience so smooth.

It was very rewarding to see such an ambitious design become a reality. A lot of people poured a whole lot of time and energy into wrangling the data into an elegant package. It was a massive team effort, and I’m really proud of the outcome we were able to create.

We’re continuing to work to incorporate more key data into the map in the future. We’re looking forward to continuing to make Skyward the most advanced airspace intelligence map for drone operations.

Skyward drone airspace map Texas LAANC grids