Use LAANC to Streamline Your Drone Surveying in Controlled Airspace

When you’re flying a drone commercially in the US, you must abide by a few aviation regulations. The first is to get certified with your Part 107 from the FAA. The second is to follow airspace restrictions.

For most sites, you probably won’t have to worry about getting special clearance from the FAA to survey. For sites sitting near controlled airspace, the process of getting that vital authorization can take months, and thus delay your drone surveying.

But now, the FAA has rolled out the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program, which directly supports UAV integration into controlled airspace.

To learn more about how LAANC works and how you can use it to quickly receive FAA authorization, we talked to McCain McMurray from our customer success team, who works with construction sites, quarries, mines, and landfills in controlled airspace.
McCain McMurray Propeller Aero Laanc Program

What is the LAANC program?

It’s a program the FAA rolled out in partnership with some private companies, like AirMap, over the course of 2018. LAANC lets you access controlled airspace, like near airports, by processing airspace authorizations below approved altitudes fast, often in near real-time.

Why do you need authorization to fly in controlled airspace in the first place?

The reason you have to get an official okay, even for something as small as a drone like a Phantom 4 Pro, is due to the nature of controlled airspace.

Controlled airspace is often located around airports. Airports are places where manned aircraft—planes and helicopters—are operating at lower altitudes than they typically would otherwise. In these low altitudes areas, there’s a greater risk of a drone colliding with a manned aircraft, which is obviously very dangerous. Outside of these controlled airspaces, there’s a flat ceiling of 400 feet for drone flight for Part 107 operations.

Approximately 700 airports are using LAANC across the US. Many of those in close proximity to urban areas, where there’s a big potential for drone flights and surveying to provide value to different industry operations.

LAANC replaced a previous system where commercial drone surveyors were required to go through the FAA directly in a much more time-consuming progress. LAANC greatly expedites this for drone surveyors

If you’re Part 107 certified, do you still have to get authorization to fly in controlled airspace?

Yes. You legally need to get that authorization to operate a drone.

Before LAANC, what did the process of working directly with the FAA for this authorization look like?

You submitted a written application to the FAA. I wasn’t a fan of the paperwork—very complex in some cases—and it could take weeks to months to hear anything back.

What’s the advantage of getting authorization through the LAANC system?

Authorization can happen almost immediately. This means you don’t have to schedule things with uncertainty in the future.

For example, if you’re pitching your boss on flying a survey, you might need that drone survey flight sooner than the FAA would grant you operational authorization. Without LAANC, you might have not been able to say if or when you could get legal authorization to fly at all. Saying that you can “maybe” fly a certain day, but that you’ll let them know in 90 days, isn’t going to convince anyone. It would be a tough sell with so little information, even with all the site benefits you get from drone surveying.  

With LAANC, how long does it take for you to get authorization?

It instantly allows you to view where controlled airspace is located and what the ceiling—maximum height above ground level—is that you’ll likely be granted authorization to fly.

If you’re operating within Part 107 regulations and fly under that local ceiling within a square mile, you can get authorization immediately.

What are the different methods for filing for LAANC authorization?

You can file directly with the FAA’s Drone Zone, but there are also fourteen private companies permitted to run this authorization.  

Most have apps that you can use right on your device. DJI has also been recently granted a LAANC partnership.

The FAA just announced recently that DJI is one of nine new LAANC service providers. It will be very interesting to see how the LAANC authorization process gets integrated into GS Pro. Most likely, you’d enter in where you’re flying and a few other parameters, like date and time, flight speed, location, etc., then it could submit that request to the FAA. As long as you meet the Part 107 requirements and the local ceiling, then you’d get a notification basically instantly. The FAA sends a text with an authorization number to confirm.

To submit for LAANC authorization, do you need to have any other prerequisites besides than Part 107 certification?

Nope. You just need to be a Part 107-certified pilot to request LAANC authorization on your site.

Are these third-party apps free?

Yes, from what I’ve seen. AirMap and GS Pro are free.

What happens when you’re authorized for that local ceiling within controlled airspace, but you need to fly higher?

If, for some reason, you absolutely need to fly higher, there is a process for that. The AirMap authorization I was talking about earlier is an “automated authorization,” which can be immediate. You can also apply for a “manual authorization,” which is for times when your requested flight altitude exceeds that given ceiling. In that latter case, AirMap sends your request to Air Traffic Control to process. They recommend submitting 72 hours ahead of time—which is still a huge improvement over months of waiting.

I should add that when you submit for either kind of authorization with LAANC, you have to specify the date and time of your planned drone flight.

This is so the rest of the aviation community, who might be using that airspace, can be notified of your flight. It also lets local air traffic control to account for any TFRs—temporary flight restrictions—in your area. For example, when the Denver Broncos play at Mile High Stadium, the FAA might issue a TFR to keep aircraft, manned and unmanned, away.

How can a site sitting in controlled airspace benefit from the LAANC program?

It can fundamentally change your ability to operate UAVs on site. It clearly allows you to see the altitude above ground level where you can be granted authorization. Prior to LAANC, you might have had to submit a tremendous amount of paperwork to the FAA for weekly or monthly operations.

Now, you can enter a few parameters into an app—it might even be a flight-planning app you already use—and get an automated authorization right away.


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