drone over San Francisco (ShutterStock image)

Platform for drone flight approvals expands its reach

The commercial technology the Federal Aviation Administration began adopting last year to automate drone flight approvals will roll out to more than 500 airports by the end of this year, according AirMap, a vendor supplying the capability.

The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability allows automatic approval of unmanned aerial systems flights that are below approved altitudes in controlled airspace. It also allows operators to notify local air traffic control of intended flight plans.

AirMap provides the service along with two other companies, Skyward and Project Wing. LAANC is currently operational in 46 airports, or about 5,000 square miles of airspace. That is expected to increase to about 75,000 square miles of airspace by the end of the year when it will enter the nationwide beta.

Besides expanding the technology's user base with the addition of new airports, the FAA authorized AirMap to offer its LAANC developer platform to third parties. With AirMap's LAANC Deep Linking service, web, iOS and Android app developers can link directly to the AirMap flight creation flow so users can transfer their flight plans to the AirMap app and receive FAA authorization via text message.

Drone software developers will include a button in their applications that will launch an AirMap window that walks the user through submitting an application. The AirMap backend checks the flight request against FAA preapproval zones from data from UAS facility maps. AirMap then sends the request to the FAA, which instantly returns an answer on the flight, said Gregory McNeal,  AirMap co-founder and professor at Pepperdine University.

“We’re bridging the gap between these government entities and developers,” he told GCN.

Skyward, a Verizon company, is planning to provide similar capabilities but was unable to provide more specific information at this time, a spokesperson said. 

AirMap worked with the FAA for 18 months to develop this authorization capability. Now, developers will be able to integrate the AirMap link into their apps in 24 hours, McNeal said.

The approval process for drone flights in restricted airspace has been a headache for operators who had wait three months – or more -- for approval. They often lost business because of the delay.

“A process that used to take 90 days now takes a matter of seconds.” McNeal said.

There are flights that still require manual authorization, like a drone flight that would take place near a runway. But that process also could be made easier in the future, McNeal said. The app could speed up approvals by prompting operators to answer questions about their flight so the FAA has enough information to approve or deny permission for the flight.

Editor's note: This article was changed Feb. 9 to correct Gregory McNeal's title and add comment from Skyward.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.

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