Today, LAANC; Tomorrow, UTM

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Last week, the FAA approved Skyward to provide our users with automated access to controlled airspace via the new Low Altitude Authorization Notification Capability (LAANC). And today, the FAA officially turned on LAANC in beta, allowing commercial drone pilots to safely and quickly access controlled airspace at Cincinnati International Airport (CVG), Reno (RNO), San Jose (SJC), and Lincoln (LNK).

LAANC is a threshold moment for the drone industry. This is the moment when regulated airspace becomes defined within software that is produced by industry; today is the first time that access to airspace is as easy as clicking a button. LAANC establishes a digital scaffold that will enable the growth and innovation of networked aerial robotics, and it is the first step toward a real system for UAS traffic management (UTM) in the national airspaces.

The FAA will be rolling out more airports in coming months (read more about it here), and Skyward will be rolling LAANC access out to all users, including to our free Pilot Accounts, within a week. In advance of the wide release, SunPower Corp., based in San Jose, beta tested LAANC access via Skyward for us today. The image at the top of this post shows the new SJC LAANC airspace.

The SunPower crew on location. Photo courtesy of SunPower.

The SunPower crew on location. Photo courtesy of SunPower.

“Innovation and leadership go hand-in-hand. SunPower is proud to be the first company in the U.S. to launch with the new LAANC authorization, giving us the flexibility to aerially evaluate a broader range of potential project sites more quickly and comprehensively for our customers,” said SunPower Vice President Matt Campbell. “Drones are a key part of the SunPower Oasis Power Plant platform today, enabling us to efficiently generate solar power plant system layouts that optimize site use and reduce costs.”

Digital, automated, free access to controlled airspace, in the form of LAANC, is one of the single greatest moments we’ve experienced in the U.S. commercial drone industry so far. I’m excited for SunPower and other customers who will get to benefit from LAANC right away. And I can’t wait to see how this spurs adoption and innovation among industry leaders, including at our parent company, Verizon.

Skyward is an original member of the NASA UAS Traffic Management (UTM) project, and I’m honored to serve as the president of an organization called the Global UTM Association (GUTMA), a non-profit consortium of stakeholders working to foster the safe, secure, and efficient integration of drones into national airspace systems. Through these groups, the drone industry is working together to provide an interoperable, distributed set of technological tools and infrastructure to bring aviation into the Information Age.

UTM is a concept in the same way that the Internet is a concept. It’s not a thing that one company builds or implements. It’s a distributed set of systems made up of hardware and software built on interoperable interfaces and protocols—similar to how ethernet and TCP/IP create a functional Internet that all of us can access every day. I see these standards and protocols as the DNA of an organic system that will grow itself, in the same way that the Internet has.

UTM means that air traffic will no longer be managed via a centralized government-maintained system, as it is today. Instead a distributed set of services will provide access to the airspace through interoperable, industry-built technologies that can handle millions of aircraft in our shared airspace—all while improving on the gold standard of safety that aviation enjoys today.