FAA Expands Instant-Approval Flight Plan Program for Drones

Matt Rourke/AP File Photo

Once deployed, the system would authorize drone flights in minutes instead of months.

Drone pilots will soon be able to get instant permission from the government to fly in the controlled airspace around some 500 nationwide airports.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday it will expand testing of a prototype system for automatically processing requests from drone operators to fly near airports. The agency will roll out the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability at about 300 air traffic facilities by mid-September, said FAA Administrator Dan Elwell at the annual UAS Symposium.

Under current FAA regulations, drone pilots only can fly at altitudes below 400 feet, and their vehicles must remain in line of sight. They’re prohibited from flying over people, which rules out most urban areas, and from flying within five miles of an airport without notifying air traffic control.

That five-mile berth becomes fairly restrictive given the density of airports in certain parts of the country, and the FAA’s current system for authorizing flight plans can take up to 90 days. Once deployed, LAANC would drastically reduce the waiting time.

Using the system, drone pilots can apply for waivers through a mobile app and get them approved almost immediately. The system also provides pilots with maps detailing flight restrictions in certain areas and gives air traffic controllers a real-time view where drones are operating.

FAA plans to kick off the nationwide beta test on April 30 and complete the rollout by Sept. 30. The agency has already struck deals with four companies—AirMap, Google’s Project Wing, Rockwell Collins and Skyward—to provide LAANC services, but groups can apply to join the program until a May 16.

The program marks “an important step” in developing the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management system, a joint effort by FAA, NASA and other agencies to build a network to oversee low-altitude drone operations.