The Federal Aviation Administration announced last week that it was going to make working drone operators’ lives easier when it comes to airspace authorizations. What used to take 60 days or more should soon take minutes. It’s probably the best news for drone journalists that’s come out of the FAA since July 2016 when the agency announced operator’s didn’t need a private pilot’s license to fly.
But there’s prep work to be done so that we don’t make bad choices in the newsrooms — especially regarding back end systems.
Quick recap: The FAA regulates the air above us and certain areas have restrictions to how and where you can fly. These are typically around airports and each type of restriction has certain requirements for altitude and other technology (here’s a look at the relatively simple airspace near Columbia, Missouri). To fly a drone legally and commercially in many of these spaces requires a waiver or authorization from the FAA. At one time you could get these authorizations from an airport’s control tower. Then the FAA instructed control towers to no longer give clearances and instead direct callers to a portal for authorization. Where you filled out a form. And waited. And waited. And sometimes got rejected. Because the portal wasn’t actually a functional portal. It was 30 contractors named Scott and Megan who spent all day processing thousands of these waiver requests (I don’t know if it was actually 30 or if they’re all named Scott or Megan, but the process takes forever).
Finally the portal came online in a limited number of locations. It’s called LAANC (Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability). And the theory behind it is great: You look at a map provided by one of the LAANC providers and see where you want to fly. You click or tap on the grid it’s in, specify the purpose of your flight, the time you want to fly and the maximum altitude you fly. You submit it and have an answer back — usually an authorization — in minutes. Unless, of course, it’s a special case, in which case the FAA is estimating 24-48 hour turnarounds. It’s been in testing at some locations and last week it was announced that the program is expanding nationwide in phases.
The FAA being the FAA, they made the announcement using air route traffic control center regions, rather than states (it makes sense from an aviation perspective but not from an ease-of-use-when-trying-to-frantically-find-the-date perspective). There’s a rundown at the bottom of when LAANC will launch in live beta in each region (which I cribbed from Skwyard.io, one of the LAANC providers).
The FAA isn’t allowing direct access to LAANC via government portal. They’ve released the API to a number of partners — four in the beta. Those are AirMap, Project Wing, Rockwell Collins and Skyward. They’ve also opened up the API to applications from other developers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see drone performance and fleet management providers like AirData and Kittyhawk integrate LAANC into their systems (Kittyhawk’s CEO got really mad at the FAA about part of the program a few months ago). This is the holy grail for service providers. If you can integrate requests into your existing system, you’re much more likely to keep your customers in that system, since the cost of changing over gets so much higher.
So there’s the problem for the drone journalists among us: We have to make sure that the LAANC provider we choose integrates with the backend that we’re using to manage our fleets. For example, I know of one smaller TV station group that requires its stations to go through a bureaucracy-heavy process for any drone flight. They use a software-reporting system that requires the pilot to map out the proposed flight area on a map and go through a pre-flight checklist, submit it to the news director for approval, who then submits it the group’s VP/News for final approval. It’s not fast — but the station group has come to depend on that particular workflow. If their software provider doesn’t integrate into LAANC or have it integrated, it creates a requirement for another system. Along with it comes additional requirements for custodianship of records, collation, etc. It gets to be a headache.
If you’re going to be using LAANC, you need to be looking at integration options before it rolls out in your airspace. And you need to be looking at more than that, too. Here’s a brief checklist:
- Does it integrate with my current workflow? This is a big one. We’d like everything to be all in one box. Spoiler: It probably won’t, at least for awhile. The FAA’s own onboarding process for new LAANC partners is a minimum 60-day process.
- Do I like how it works? Put simply, how easy is it to use? Do I envision using it a lot from the field so it needs a mobile interface? Or is most of my shooting done with advanced planning and a desktop interface will do?
- Where are the records kept? Your insurance company would like to know this. The danger of any kind of third-party software is that the third-party provider will go out of business or drastically change its terms of service. The FAA will have copies of it (we think). But that’s a pain to get. So you’ll want to make sure the records are accessible to you as an email copy that you can save or that the provider allows you to sync/download those files as PDFs.
Now, about those regional rollout dates…
South-Central Region: Albuquerque, Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City air traffic control centers. So basically all or portions of: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
Western-North Region: Anchorage, Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City air traffic control centers. All or portions of Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
Western-South Region: Los Angeles, Oakland, Honolulu air traffic control centers. All or portions of California, Hawaii, Nevada,
Eastern-South Region: Atlanta, Memphis, Miami, Jacksonville, San Juan
All or portions of: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee
Eastern-North Region: Boston, New York, Washington air traffic control centers
All or portions of: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont
Central-North: Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis
Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin.