FAA Drone Experts In The Zone

August 9, 2019
FAA Drone Experts In The Zone

By K. Daniel Glover

Drone pilots across the country are getting their requests to fly in controlled airspace reviewed more quickly thanks to a new approach implemented in FAA service centers last fall.

The agency relocated the tasking to review airspace authorizations to subject matter experts in the service centers in Georgia, Texas and Washington. These teams processed a backlog of nearly 20,000 requests in the ensuing months. Now they are focused on the hundreds of new requests submitted through the FAADroneZone each week.

“It has become a model for the world,” said Anthony Schneider, the Air Traffic Organization’s safety director. “It’s really an amazing story.”

It took several years to get to this point of UAS integration into the national airspace system. The first big step occurred with the 2016 implementation of Part 107, the federal aviation regulation that governs commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems. The rules allow commercial drone pilots to fly up to 400 feet in most uncontrolled airspace without contacting the FAA, but they must get permission to fly near controlled airports.

To deter drone pilots from contacting air traffic control towers directly, the FAA in the short term tasked FAA headquarters with authorizing airspace access. “We wanted to shift that work from the field facilities to somewhere else,” said Schneider, who worked on Part 107 implementation at FAA headquarters for two years.

Photo: Cedar Box Photography

Behind the scenes, the agency worked on a more permanent solution – grid maps of the airspace around airports that could be used to approve most requests automatically. The maps eventually were incorporated into the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, a data exchange that enabled third parties to create mobile applications for airspace approvals.

What the FAA did not fully anticipate is just how sudden and great the demand would be to fly in urban areas for commercial purposes. “There’s not a lot of money to be made in a pasture,” Schneider said. “If you want to make money, you’ve got to go where the people are.”

He said a tidal wave of requests, including more than a thousand in the first week, flooded into the FAA. “People requested everything, everywhere,” quickly overwhelming the nine people in the Air Traffic Organization who analyzed the requests for safety. The stated goal of responding to the requests within 90 days began to slip.

Two developments in 2018 – the debut of the FAADroneZone and the deployment of LAANC – paved the way for moving the manual reviews to the service centers.

LAANC has been used to process tens of thousands of airspace requests since then, significantly easing the workload on the small team of analysts. Requests that do not meet the parameters of LAANC go through the FAADroneZone, where the analysts in the service centers pull them for manual review based on the locations of the requests.

“This is an excellent example of transitioning an execution element of the operations from headquarters to the service centers,” said Ryan Almasy, the Operations Support Group manager in the Eastern Service Center.

The analysts tackled the backlog of requests based on how many were outstanding in each region. The Central Service Center had the most, so more analysts were dedicated there first, followed by Eastern and Western.

Each service center now has a team of five to seven UAS airspace analysts, including the original nine who were relocated from headquarters. Going forward, the teams have the flexibility to handle airspace requests for other regions as the need arises.

“We have defined a process that utilizes automation to consistently deliver high-quality and reliable products, and outstanding customer service with greater efficiency,” said Steve Szukala, the Operations Support Group manager in the Center Service Center.

With the backlog now gone, the analysts are able to approve airspace requests within days instead of months. Schneider said the typical review in Central takes three to five business days. In Eastern, the author of this story, who is an FAA-certified drone pilot, recently received two authorizations within two days to fly near Manassas Regional Airport.

Byron Chew, the tactical operations team manager for the Western Service Center, said UAS airspace reviews under Part 107 are a logical outgrowth of work the service centers already do. This includes certificates of waiver or authorization for amateur rockets, balloons and kites.

“Adapting to the ever-changing requirements in the progress toward normalizing UAS operations in the NAS is something that the service centers are used to doing,” Chew said.

A version of this story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website. It has been reprinted here with permission. (Photos by Cedar Box Photography)