This is a big deal. A really big deal. This is the FAA entering the 21st century.
One of the most frequent frustrations for commercial drone operators has been the circular “activity” that flight in Class C or D airspace has been.
The FAA tells the operators that operation within Class C and D airspace requires approval from the ATC facility that controls that airspace, yet the ATC Towers have been told that no procedure exists to permit UAS flight. Are we having fun yet?
The FAA has issued a 22-page ATO Policy (effective on October 3, 2016) that finally defines the procedures that every ATC facility will follow for authorized UAS flight in their area.
I am not clear how the process will work until the automated process is implemented, but it appears that the UAS pilot will make contact through the FAA UAS website.
What I find most encouraging is that all of the ATC facilities have been directed to provide input to FAA HQ in the form of an altitude grid. It looks a lot like the upside-down wedding cake of Class B and C airspace on sectional charts. [See image at the top of the post.]
Here’s how I read the ATO Policy. The pilot will notify FAA HQ of a planned flight. FAA HQ will use the UASFM (above) to determine if the flight will require coordination with the facility. If no coordination is deemed necessary, then the approval is sent by email to the pilot and the facility. You are done – go fly. The FAA expects this to be fully automated sometime in 2018, so in the meanwhile, expect some confusion.
If facility coordination is required, the facility has to provide a valid reason that the flight cannot be completed as filed.
No more blanket, “there’s a drone, we’re all gonna’ die”.
I followed up with Steve to tell him we were running the article and to ask him a few questions. Here is some additional material from our exchange.
If it works as advertised, I think it will be a major improvement- straight from “hell no” to “hell yes”. Notice that the ATC facilities are directed to use Google Earth KMZ files? So, a drone pilot will log on to the automated system, enter the flight data, and the affected facility will receive an email with a KMZ file. The UAS specialist will double-click the KMZ file and see the flight before it occurs. The UAS pilot will get an automatic approval if we’re below the predetermined
In my response to the Part 107 NPRM I argued for the ability to use the existing Flight Plan to serve as the required contact with ATC, but this is far, far
Looking further forward, I can envision a public portal where someone can determine if a drone they see is in the system – much the same as flightaware.com tracks everything with a transponder. Drone flights can be superimposed on a controllers screen making it easier to call out possible conflicts to nearby aircraft.
Will there be any glitches during the startup? Of course. That’s the definition of Version 1.0. Glitches aside, a catastrophic fail is remarkably unlikely. There have been more than a million hours of flight of small drones, yet there is not one verifiable report of a collision between a small drone and a manned aircraft.
Communication will be the weak link. This is how I see it working. ATC radar screens are really just computer displays. in normal operations the controllers can only see aircraft with operating transponders, but the display can include temporary events, like skydiving or amateur rocket activity. And then, only if the computer thinks there may be a potential conflict with aircraft “in the system”. In the system means participating aircraft receiving ATC separation by radio. So, the UAS flight will become one of those temporary activities that will show on the controllers’ screen if the ATC computer thinks there may be a conflict.
(The controller may elect to see all primary returns, raw data, or VFR aircraft, but normal means participating aircraft and potential threats.).
Most towers have a secondary ATC display that is used to show transponder equipped aircraft in their area. They still use a grease pencil to mark temporary activities. Some towers have no radar display at all.
When you file for a UAS flight near a controlled airspace, ATC will likely grant a window for the flight. The window will be a specific begin-end time, location and radius (probably a mile) and maximum altitude. If you can’t complete the flight in this window you will have to refile. No one will know if you *don’t* fly, but you do have that window.
I think the number of “airports” may be decreased through this system. I have lived in my home for ten years and B4YouFly shows three “airports” within five miles of my home. Two hotels and an office building have FAA-designated heliports. Imagine their surprise when I call them to say that I will be flying a drone a few miles from their location and I am alerting them to the flight per FAA rules. (“What? The FAA says we’re an airport??).
A classic post from Steve Mann.
If you want to read all 22 pages – and you might – here is FAA JO 7200.23
In reference to the map at the top of the post here are the instructions:
(2) Each facility will work collaboratively with their workforce to develop the UA map. Each segment must be evaluated to determine what the highest altitude a UA could operate without any coordination to the facility.
(3) Facilities must evaluate all segments for the maximum altitude they will allow, without further coordination, within their area of jurisdiction for flights between 0 and 400 feet in 50 foot increment
If you think about Steve’s comment, the lack of people at some locations to do this may cause some problems.
To me the real news remains is that the FAA is still hell bent on maintaining different rules for Part 107, 333, government COAs and modelers. Hard to say if the towers will have time to parse this but color me confused. For instance, admire this bit of sleight of hand:
Chapter 3. Part 101, Subpart E Operations
A. ATC services, inclusive of separation, are not provided to Part 101, Subpart E operators (also known as modelers/hobbyists).
B. Notification. Part 101 operators are required to notify the airport and ATCT, if one is operational, when operating within 5 statute miles of the airport.
According to Chapter 5, 333 and public COA holders continue to be required to file a NOTAM. Which is something that pilots are used to and know how to do.
One could be left with the impression that the FAA is scrambling to figure out the details – though the JO (Job Order) is dated October 3 2016 which includes some wiggle room. I guess all you can say is this is a case of better late than never. Why should I be the only one allowed to cram for the test?
I strongly suggest Mr. Huerta arrange for a private screening of Lord Of The Rings, then have an ideation session around the concept of “one ring to rule them all.”