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April 7, 2017 // Steve Weidner Talks the Future of Airspace Authorizations

The most notable news from last week’s “Future of Airspace Authorizations” panel at the Federal Aviation Administration’s second annual Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) symposium was the emergence of a new acronym. It’s one that controllers across the National Airspace System may come to know well fairly soon.

It’s called LAANC — Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability. In a nutshell, it is a developing program that starts with each facility mapping its airspace. The information would be stored in a database that is part of an automated system for granting approvals of commercial UAS operations in controlled airspace. Hobbyist UAS operators will also be able to use this tool to notify the tower when flying within five miles of the airport. Ideally, it would allow FAA headquarters to approve registered UAS operators to fly in the released airspace on the facility’s behalf.

The system would replace the current manual process that often requires UAS operators to wait 30 days or more to have their requests to fly in local airspace approved. The goal of this and all FAA and NATCA efforts on UAS remains the safe integration of UAS into the NAS.

“The FAA is working with several industry stakeholders on a common data sharing platform,” NATCA Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) National Rep Steve Weidner said. “Industry will develop a tool for the UAS operators. The agency will supply the map data to be used in the tool. That data will then be available to UAS operators via the tool to help them see where they may be authorized to fly. The tool will then provide the operator with nearly instantaneous approval of their request. That is the idea.”

In exchange, Weidner added, the list of registered UAS operators whose approvals are granted would then be provided back to the facility.

The airspace mapping involved dividing the airspace into a grid comprised of one square mile areas. “We asked each facility to identify altitudes they could release, up to 400 feet above ground level,” Weidner said. Runway areas and heliports would be off limits, of course, he added.

The idea of an automated system would relieve the unpleasant and impractical alternative — individual operators all calling the tower for approval to fly.

While hobbyist UAS operators do not require permission to fly, the law does require that the hobbyist notify the airport operator and the control tower if one is located at the airport if the hobbyist will be flying within five miles of the airport. The LAANC system would also provide hobbyist UAS operators the ability to provide that notification. Weidner said controllers would still retain the right to deny a UAS operation.

“We absolutely need the ability to deny an operation,” he said. “That’s how we keep the airspace safe. It’s for the safety of everyone who flies in and out of these airports. If hobbyists request something unsafe, we will deny it. They may do it anyway, but there would be consequences with the FAA.”

The panel covered activities already underway to support the future of airspace notification and authorization, and considered the future dynamic of communication between UAS operators and air traffic controllers.

In other UAS news, Weidner participated on a panel March 22 at Communicating For Safety moderated by NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert. The panel was entitled, “The Effect of Government Regulations and Policies on Aviation Safety, Efficiency, and Growth.” Part of the discussion dealt with the executive order requiring the elimination of two regulations for every new regulation introduced. The panel discussed how, in the case of UAS integration, the introduction of new rules or regulations actually speeds up integration.

Absent UAS rules and regulations, UAS operations are handled individually, by exception, said Weidner. That process is time consuming and requires unsustainable levels of FAA manpower to process proponent requests.

In addition to the panel, Weidner, NATCA’s Jeff Richards and their FAA counterpart, John Page, gave a UAS presentation during breakout sessions at CFS on March 22. Good questions were asked and the information presented was well received, Weidner said. He also briefed the NATCA Air Safety Investigations Committee on March 23.