Under the FAA’s rules governing the operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, commonly known as “drones”) for non-recreational purposes, operations within a few miles of an airport (referred to as “controlled airspace”) are prohibited absent permission from Air Traffic Control (ATC). Obtaining that permission can be slow and cumbersome, sometimes taking up to three months. Late last year, the FAA began testing an automated system for reviewing requests to operate in controlled airspace. The program, called Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC, pronounced ‘Lance’), is currently in operation at 45 airports around the country. But hundreds more will be added in the next six months.

In preparation for LAANC, ATC personnel worked with the FAA to determine which parts of their controlled airspace are generally safe for UAS operations, namely areas not near flight paths. Controlled airspace is generally a circle around an airport, but planes usually come in on a straight-line approach to a runway, requiring protection of a much smaller area within the controlled airspace. Maps are publicly available so UAS pilots can plan their operations accordingly. LAANC allows a UAS operator licensed under the FAA’s Part 107 rules to request permission for operations in controlled airspace and receive a response in minutes, rather than months. The FAA reports that the vast majority of controlled airspace requests are granted, and are granted in near real-time, while only a small number require follow-up review by ATC personnel (usually because they are for areas not listed as “safe” on the maps).

Beginning April 30, 2018, the FAA will be rolling out LAANC to more airports, starting with parts of the Central US, then moving to the West, and then the East, before returning to the remainder of the Central US in September. Expansion of the LAANC program will streamline the process by which UAS operators gain access to controlled airspace and will provide a model for future UAS integration efforts, a longtime goal of the FAA, NASA, and industry, all of whom are working to allow more commercial UAS operations without undermining the safety of manned aviation.