LAANC… we’ve all heard it by now, if you’re a drone pilot, but what does it really mean? Is it a magical portal that will eliminate the huge backlog of pilots waiting on airspace authorizations? Or is it a way for the FAA to have more control over what we do? Is it both or maybe something else completely??? (Cue spooky Halloween music)
We, at Digital Sky, have the privilege of being based in one of 4 cities around the country who are the first to get access to the system. Which means, of course we’re going to try it out on a shoot and let you know how it goes! The Back Story: A client of ours had asked us to fly at the local children’s zoo for an annual event called Boo at the Zoo which has been going on for as long as I can remember. They’re a major sponsor of the event, and asked us to capture some footage for them. Lincoln is an interesting town. Last I checked we’ve got a population of about 250,000, a class C airport, a Big Ten University, and a police force that is extremely welcoming and curious about drones. We also happen to be the Capitol of Nebraska, and thus, our state government resides here. There has been relatively little effort by the city to preempt the FAA, so overall I’d say we’re a pretty drone friendly town. In fact, when we first started applying for authorizations, local ATC and the representatives that coordinate airspace authorization approvals in the area decided that rather than spend extra time and money reviewing all these authorizations, they’d give us an authorization that basically put a safe zone of about 2000 feet around the airport’s perimeter, and told us we could have free reign on any airspace outside that box, up to 400 feet, so long as we followed the rest of the regs, of course.
Anyway… it comes as no shock to me that Lincoln would be among the first to try this system out as they seem to be in the “Why are you bothering us by asking for authorization,” mindset.
That brings us to our LAANC Authorization. As many of you saw, Skyward did a little press release the other day which made it seem like they were the only ones given the opportunity to do these types of authorizations. So… I logged onto their system and was immediately greeted with a user interface that was clunky and not so great to use. I basically said F that and moved on. Then, I had seen Airmap saying they had the ability to do it too. I like Airmap for LAANC right now. I know, an unpopular opinion. Boooo… let’s set aside the fact that they’re trying to control our lives for a minute and just focus on LAANC. They really do have a great platform. It’s user friendly, the design is top notch, and it serves its purpose. I went onto the app, drew an awkwardly shaped box around the area we’d be flying, plus a bit of a buffer zone incase we wanted to get some establishing shots. I added all my info, typed in my phone number and input the code they gave me and BOOM. Authorization complete. Well… almost. It took me a few tries to figure out that they cut your authorization off at sunset, and if your requested time goes past it, they won’t process it. A rookie mistake on my part. I guess I’m spoiled in the sense that all of our written authorizations include our daytime waiver.
It was a pretty pain free process that literally takes less than 5 minutes. So what’s bad about that?
Let me tell you…
I’m the kind of guy that greatly values my time. Time spent on something is time spent that I could be doing something else. You know… opportunity cost. Basic Economics. So much so that I even built a tool to automatically send in my authorization extension requests so I don’t have to worry about them anymore. (You can use it too, free here.) Those five minutes spent getting every single authorization will add up over time. It takes me about 20 to 30 minutes to write a really well worded authorization, which lasts 6 months. During that time we’re free to essentially do whatever we want, whenever we want, as many times as we want. I see LAANC being most beneficial to crews or single operators who fly in any given airspace less than once a month. That’s not to say those are it’s only merits. Once the system is fully operational and works in every single controlled airspace around the country, I think we’ll use it quite a bit more. For example. If we get a call to head somewhere that we’ve never been, and likely won’t return, I’d probably turn to LAANC over filling out the form on the FAA’s website. To me, this is exactly how the FAA wants it to happen. It frees up their people from having to field requests from people over and over again for more and more airspace, many of whom will only use the authorization once. For example, we recently went to Columbus Ohio and flew for a client in the suburb of Dublin. We were less than a mile from THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY Airport. (Sorry for the caps, but I feel like that’s how every buckeye says that. I don’t understand them.) We had to wait about 4 months to schedule that job because our authorization took so long to get back, yet we were on site for less than 24 hours. So in that case I would definitely use LAANC.
At this point you’ve either stopped reading or you’re in the edge of your seat thinking “OMG What’s the ‘Ugly’ about LAANC???” Have no fear, the time has come.
I think the worst part about LAANC is that it’s going to be provided by several outside vendors. This means that each experience is going to be different. Each method of notification is going to be different, and we’re going to see our Facebook ad spaces filled up with ads like “So you’re needing airspace authorization? We’ve got the best LAANC authorizations around.” That’s not too far off the Skyward ad I keep seeing everywhere now that I abandoned using them. Maybe this isn’t really that big of deal, but if you’re like me, you like consistency. To me there’s already a winner in LAANC authorizations. Airmap. They’re too big not to win. Everyone knows them. They get work done. And they’ve got a solid platform. The truly unfortunate part about this though is that they are pushing for wider and more stringent regulation at various levels of government because when things get harder for people like us, we turn to tools like the ones they provide, which means they get a higher number of users, which in turn generates revenue through whatever revenue model they have set up or will set up in the future.
So how did the flight go? Normal. No one in the public would have known otherwise. We did the work, our clients were happy, we got to show off our equipment to a new generation of drone pilots all dressed in their halloween gear, and it was a good day. We even managed to do a bit of trick or treating cause who doesn’t love free candy?
Director of Flight Operations
Justin Kyser is the director of Flight operations and a CoFounder of Digital Sky. Justin holds degrees in aviation and business and is a licensed commercial pilot. Follow him @justinkyser on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Digital Sky @digitalskyco on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.