FAA, Industry Work To Automate Drone Airspace Authorizations

 - March 28, 2017, 4:38 PM
Airspace authorization to fly commercial drones such as the Matrice M200 will be expedited under the LAANC capability. (Photo: DJI)

The Federal Aviation Administration is taking steps to automate the approvals that drone operators need to fly in controlled airspace and to track small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that are already in flight.

Under an initiative called the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), the FAA has developed maps with pre-approved flight zones and maximum altitudes for operating drones near airports. The agency expects to activate a prototype LAANC system by the end of the year, executives said March 27, during the FAA UAS Symposium in Reston, Virginia.

Once operational, the system will automate the FAA’s process of granting waivers and authorizations to commercial drone operators seeking to fly in controlled airspace, a process that can now take up to 90 days. LAANC will also provide a means for drone hobbyists to notify air traffic control when they plan to fly within five miles of an airport, a requirement expressed by Congress in 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation.

The LAANC system is considered a precursor to the comprehensive UTM (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management) system a NASA-led team is developing for transfer to the FAA by 2019. “The current process for meeting authorization and notification requirements of existing rules is manually intensive and therefore costly,” the FAA states in a draft LAANC concept of operations document released in February. “The FAA is seeking to close the gap of manual versus automated data transfer and authorizations by defining and establishing a technological solution that will allow for data exchange between operators and ATC.”

While the FAA is providing map information and a communications connection, it will rely on third-party providers (TPP) to serve as the interface, or a type of middleman, with drone operators. TTPs will use map data and rules laid down by the FAA to authorize where, when and under what conditions operators can fly.

“Pre-UAS it was a manageable process but the appetite and the desire to operate UASs just took on a life of its own, so it’s not unusual to have thousands of authorizations waiting to be processed,” Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, told the symposium.

“We had a need and industry had a desire—so we partnered,” Bristol added. “We’ve developed maps for all of our airports with the important information that needs to be on them and industry, at no cost to the agency, will manage through that. So if you want to operate your UAS in a controlled airspace, near or close to an airport, as long as you’re below the required altitudes it could be a very rapid authorization and it could be almost immediate.”

The FAA is also assembling an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) of industry and government experts to recommend standards for identifying and tracking drones remotely, or from a distance, which is “one of the law enforcement community’s top concerns,” said Administrator Michael Huerta. In the FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act of 2016, which became effective last July, Congress directed the agency to develop consensus identification standards within two years. The agency expects the ARC recommendations will also help it develop rules for drone flights over people and flights beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight—uses disallowed except by waiver under the Part 107 regulation that became effective in August.

James Eck, FAA assistant administrator for NextGen, the agency’s long-term ATC modernization effort, said technologies other than automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) are being considered for the remote identification capability. ADS-B would require that drones be fitted with transmitters to continuously broadcast their position in space.

In a white paper released during the symposium, Shenzhen, China-based DJI, the leading manufacturer of small recreational and commercial drones, proposed a “non-networked, localized ID” system by which drones would transmit identifying information to ground receivers using existing control or video links in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz frequency bands.

“The balanced approach that we propose to solving safety, security and accountability concerns while taking into account operator privacy and safety, is to create an identification mechanism that provides localized identification without permanent recording or logging,” DJI stated. “Remote UAS identification then becomes analogous to an enhanced version of a car license plate. An identifier, such as a registration number, together with position information about the drone, and perhaps some voluntary information if the operator wishes, is transmitted from the drone, and is available to all receivers that are within range.”

The FAA reported at the symposium that it has issued more than 37,000 remote pilot certificates to date under the Part 107 regulation for commercial drone operations, and registered 770,000 drone hobbyists through its online registry. Winsome Lenfert, deputy associate administrator for airports, said the agency is now evaluating a proposed drone port in Boulder City, Nevada.