While numerous professionals were happy to see the definition that Part 107 brought to legally operating a drone for commercial purposes, many were disappointed it didn’t go as far as they envisioned. Certain operations like flying over non-participants and night-time flying are not included under Part 107, which means operators need to request a waiver and/or airspace authorization. With thousands of application being filed on a weekly basis, the FAA created the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program to improve this application process, and their work to do so is being reflected with the release of about 200 new maps around airports throughout the United States.
Matt Fanelli, Senior Manager for Strategy at Skyward, explained that this means very soon, an unmanned aerial system will be able to fly up to the 200-foot ceiling without being required to apply for airspace authorization in areas that have required airspace authorization and local air traffic control coordination. It’s something he can speak to from a position of authority, since Skyward was one of the 12 companies asked by the FAA to participate in the LAANC group, and Matt has led those policy and regulatory efforts.
While Matt has already explained how the FAA Will Open More Airspace for UAS Ops, I wanted to learn more about what exactly that does and will mean for operators. I got in touch with Matt to get a better idea around the work he’s doing with the LAANC program, how all of this is designed to be the first step toward a comprehensive UTM system, how this news will allow operators to write better waiver requests and plenty more.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: What can you tell us about how you’ve seen regulation change since you started at Skyward? Have you seen the FAA itself shift in terms of their approach and outlook around drones?
Matt Fanelli: When we first got into this space, commercial operations were largely illegal. Moving from a regulatory framework that prohibited most commercial UAS operations to one where there are thousands of flights per day has been pretty thrilling. As a startup, Skyward was betting that UAS technology and applications were going to grow into a major industry, but the FAA was caught off guard by just how quickly that happened. To their enduring credit, they’ve adapted admirably and maintained their position as the foremost thought leaders in airspace management, often by listening to the industry and offering frank assessments of their own performance. This latest LAANC program is the most recent example of collaborative thought leadership.
How much does the current waiver process remind you of the old Section 333 Exemption process?
There are obvious similarities between the two systems, but Part 107 gave commercial operators some rules of engagement that were largely absent under the 333 Exemption system, and when you know what the rules are, it becomes easier to craft common-sense requests for exceptions to those rules. The catch-22 about making the waiver process easier is that more commercial operators are filing these requests than were filing 333 exemptions, and the FAA isn’t quite staffed sufficiently to meet that demand. We’re hopeful that the FAA continues its efforts to automate some of these processes so that Skyward can enable even more valuable UAS operations.
I understand you’ve led Skyward’s policy and regulatory efforts by working with the FAA on the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program. What can you tell us about that program? Is the FAA’s mapping of the new airspace a direct result of the work this group has been doing?
The LAANC program has two major goals: 1) make the 107 waiver process more efficient for operators and the FAA, and 2) serve as the foundational first step toward an unmanned traffic management system. The new UAS facility maps that the FAA released on Thursday gives the public some insight into how the system is going to work. By early next year, a commercial operator will be able to use Skyward to plan a flight in the new airspace volumes, submit that plan through to the FAA and go fly, all in close to real time without having to go through the 107 waiver process at all.
These new airspace maps are a result of the work the LAANC working group has been doing with each local air traffic control tower manager and the FAA. You can expect to see more maps for the larger airports around the U.S. in the coming months. In the meantime, the FAA is encouraging commercial operators to look at the maps for a guide to writing a good 107 waiver.
What sort of opportunities do you foresee coming together as a result of the newly opened parts of the airspace that, until recently, required airspace authorization and local air traffic control coordination?
Increasingly, we’re going to see commercial operators respond in real time to events with their UAS. Practically speaking, this means that a news media crew wishing to film in controlled airspace will be able to request access and receive authorization as soon as they learn about the story, rather than waiting up to 90 days for a response to their request for that airspace. That’s a real inflection point in this industry.
What type of operator should be paying special attention to these additional airspace volumes?
All part 107 pilots should have a working knowledge of these new volumes, but recreational users would be well-served by understanding more about where manned aircraft might also be flying. That’s really what the FAA and local ATC are telling commercial operators with these new airspace volumes. At some point in the future, we envision a system where the local ATC can update these volumes in real time based on dynamic information like wind direction, and airspace management systems like Skyward can inform local UAS pilots of the new restrictions and new open airspace.
You mentioned that this system could be the first step in a move toward a UTM system. In what ways do you foresee this development will be built upon?
This work is intended to be a first step toward a comprehensive UTM system. By agreeing on things like the data format for reporting flight plans and a common system for organizing that data, the industry and the FAA are defining the fundamental building blocks of the UTM: who is flying, where they are flying, and when. We’re also leaning on NASA’s efforts and the Global UAS Traffic Management Association (GUTMA) to help inform the LAANC working group. There is still a lot of work to be done before we get to a truly comprehensive UTM system, but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t fun working to make this happen.
Is it possible that the automatic approval system envisioned by LAANC will enable other kinds of operations that currently require a waiver?
It’s possible that by building out this first airspace functionality, the FAA will set itself up to be able to process other waivers in a similar manner, but to my knowledge there are no plans for that today. Thus far however, the FAA has been most successful when it focuses on one problem at a time, so we probably won’t want to distract them with too many scope increases at this stage of the process.
What’s the best way for operators to understand where and how they can take advantage of the airspace that’s been opened up by this development?
To be honest, the combination of the types of airspaces that the FAA chose to publish and the fact that the LAANC system won’t be live for a few more months (at least) means that there isn’t a ton of tangible benefit to commercial operators today. But it does show a glimpse into the near future, and as an industry we tend to get pretty excited when that happens. By using the maps today, commercial operators can write better waiver requests in more than 200 new cities, and we can dream on the day when the automated system is live for the remaining 700+ jurisdictions.