Since last August, Part 107 has undoubtedly lowered the barrier to entry for businesses launching commercial drone operations. But it has also created new challenges, especially for companies that were already running fairly sophisticated operations.
Several months ago, Richard Lopez, Virtual Design and Construction Manager at Hensel Phelps Construction Co., told us that the waiver process introduced by Part 107 has added time-consuming hurdles to his workflow. “It’s more difficult to obtain permission to fly in controlled airspace now,” he said. “Previously, if I saw that I had a project in controlled airspace, I’d just call air traffic control and work it out with them. Now, we have to go through the waiver process, which can take months.”
Earlier this year, the FAA said that it had been receiving more than 3,000 Part 107 waiver requests per week, with a backlog in the in the tens of thousands.
As organizations such as NASA and the Global UTM Association work with the industry to develop a truly digital, automated system for UAS traffic management, an innovation which is still a few years out, the FAA is working on a way to give drone operators more access to the airspace. The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability system (LAANC—pronounced Lance) will provide commercial operators—and drone airspace map providers like Skyward—with pre-approved flight zones and maximum altitudes for operating drones near airports.
LAANC will enable drone operators to access some airspace that previously required a waiver, and it will automate the waiver application process, significantly reducing the wait time for approvals. It will also give recreational drone pilots a way to notify air traffic control when they plan to fly within five miles of an airport. So in the near future, a utility company may actually be able to use drones to inspect wind turbines located near an airport, as in the image above.
The FAA is aiming to have the prototype live before the end of the year, and the full system should go online in February of 2018.
As one of 12 members of the LAANC working group, Skyward is helping to develop this capability as an essential method to help our customers operate efficiently and safely—our main priority as a business. I sat down with my colleague Matt Fanelli, Skyward’s Director of Strategy, to find out what LAANC will mean for companies operating drones, as well as Skyward’s role in developing the new system.
As of this writing, Matt has participated in eight in-person meetings and calls with the FAA and other members, including Amazon, Google, Harris, and Boeing.
Q: What can a company with a large drone operation (say, dozens of drones and pilots) expect in terms of new processes when LAANC is released?
Matt: The benefit of LAANC will be that operators won’t have to go through that lengthy waiver process anymore. Soon, within Skyward, the operator will instead be able to view LAANC airspace, provide a minimal amount of information, and be granted instant access to fly up to the FAA’s altitude limit for a given volume of airspace.
One important note is that the waiver-and-authorization process is still there. If you know you’re going to fly frequently in a given location, you should still apply for an airspace authorization. It’ll give you more airspace access and for a longer period of time. In that case, you might not want to use LAANC.
Q: What will LAANC mean for Skyward users?
Matt: We already encourage our customers to use the Skyward airspace map to check the airspace ahead of time, draw a flight area, and coordinate with the local ATC. But LAANC will allow users to collapse these activities into one simple workflow within Skyward. Experienced users will have no friction in being able to plan operations in these types of locations. They’ll simply request access to that airspace for a certain duration. You can request for a day and time window, so if you have a multi-day operation, you may have to submit separate LAANC requests for each day.
Q: What about companies that are just beginning to launch a drone pilot program? Will LAANC lower barriers to entry for them?
Matt: For companies based in urban areas with several airports, seeing all that controlled airspace can be off-putting, especially given the wait time for airspace authorization that we in the industry have experienced so far. Having an easy, efficient way to access some of that airspace will make adoption much smoother for companies that don’t have the resources to engage in time-consuming processes.
Q: How has Skyward been involved in shaping LAANC?
Matt: One of our goals from the outset was to protect our customers’ privacy. We believe that LAANC is an important step forward for the drone industry in the U.S.—but it shouldn’t come at the expense of our customers’ and their pilots’ private information. So we’ve advocated for a limited scope of information sharing—just enough for flight deconfliction, but no more.
We want our customers to have the easiest possible access to airspace with the minimum amount of information necessary for LAANC to do its job: enabling safe access to airspace near airports.
Q: Can we really expect a LAANC prototype this year? And what does a “prototype” mean? Will companies be able to act on it?
Matt: The FAA plans to release a working prototype this year; it will comprise airspace for 30 or so airports, and it will be fully usable. The whole thing is set to go live in February 2018.
Q: What comes next for LAANC after the prototype? What’s the long-term vision?
Matt: LAANC is a stopgap solution, and UAV traffic management isn’t the inevitable next step—that’s why Skyward is also heavily involved with the Global UTM Association. With LAANC, the FAA intends to enable access to significantly more useful airspace in an easier and quicker time frame. This is one of the fundamental values of a UTM system as well, but LAANC is not comprehensive and it’s not intended to grow into a UTM system.
There’s also the paperwork element. The FAA expects that LAANC will eliminate most of the airspace waivers they currently have to deal with. For airspace not covered by LAANC, companies will still have to submit a waiver. But the process should go much faster because the queue will be so much shorter.