The first prototype of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability System has been up since October and the full LAANC system will launch in February 2018, encouraging drone industry players with the possibilities of the new system. But what will LAANC mean for users in the present and future? Experts say LAANC brings much needed change of laws expediting authorizations and clarifying laws, to start.

The new system will create opportunity by simplifying the process of legally operating a drone, allowing drones to be operated within five miles of an airport and in controlled airspace. LAANC is a precursor to the NASA-led development of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management (UTM) system. LAANC is the low-altitude portion of the UTM system.

The FAA and NASA have created a joint research transition team, with the intent of transferring UTM to the FAA in 2019. The FAA has used LAANC to develop maps with maximum altitudes and pre-approved flight zones for operating drones. Now, with the first rendition of LAANC running full throttle, drone users can expect the new rules to have several effects, including:

  1. More standardized regulations. LAANC is a foundation block for drone traffic management in US airspace. It is the start of an airspace that is truly shared between manned aircraft and drones across the country. The recognition of the differences between drone operators and aircraft pilots inherent in the LAANC system are enabling regulators to take a more practical approach to such shared airspaces since territories in airspace are more clearly delineated. This should help propel the drone industry forward, by providing a framework for current and future operations of drones in airspaces across the nation.
  2. Easier access to airports. Users will have the ability to safely and legally operate near airports. The system provides operators with pre-approved flight zones and maximum altitudes for operating drones near airports.
  3. Automatic approvals. Prior to LAANC, accessing controlled airspace was obtained through a waiver process taking up to 90 days. Now, approval can be gotten online and near instantaneously.

“With LAANC, automated approvals take only moments. Some of our users have reported getting even manual approvals in less than a minute,” said Ben Marcus, CEO of AirMap. “Missions that were grounded can now be enabled -- an outcome that can be scaled across the national airspace system.”

Skyward customer SunPower was the first company in the United States to get fast access to controlled airspace through LAANC, said Matt Fanelli, Director of Strategy for Skyward. “[SunPower] applied for an authorization to fly within controlled airspace at San Jose on Oct. 23 and received approval in just seconds. When the national beta begins in early 2018, we expect nearly every business operating drones commercially to benefit when airspace in their area goes live,” Fanelli said.

  1. More drone sector jobs. The immediate approval process and the presence of FAA-approved LAANC authorizers means drone companies can confidently take on more jobs.
  2. Pushback from the drone industry. While some drone firms are happy with the way LAANC is being rolled out because they are part of that process, others say the process is far from transparent or competitive. The grumbling will no doubt grow louder as more companies not among the initial dozen chosen to be LAANC authorizers complain about the dozen getting an unfair advantage, since many other companies weren’t aware of the FAA’s RFP for companies interested in being involved in LAANC. These complaints could lead to a more transparent process or at the least, lead to the inclusion of more drone industry firms approved to authorize in LAANC.

Private companies helping the FAA determine regulations is not in and of itself a problem, industry experts say. But some say LAANC is different.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for private industry to help the FAA… The problem is, if there’s no competitive landscape, commercial drone operators can take advantage of users because users have no other choice,” said Joshua Ziering, founder of Kittyhawk.

  1. Safer Skies. Since it will encourage more drone operators to fly within the confines of the law, LAANC should help make skies safer, too. Jonathan Rupprecht, a pilot and attorney specializing in drone laws, mentioned that LAANC being quicker than the online portal route will result in many [companies] going that route rather than just simply flying without an authorization.

“The users of LAANC will have a better awareness of maximum altitudes for some airspace. Keep in mind that LAANC won't really fix a lack of enforcement from the FAA. It just makes it easier for the lawful, and ‘borderline lawful,’ to conduct themselves lawfully,” Rupprecht said.

Fanelli is more hopeful about the new system. LAANC will incrementally improve US airspace safety today, but in the future, it will have a significant impact on safety, he said.

“Through Skyward’s LAANC functionality we’re connecting the key information about each operation to the local ATC tower so that in emergency situations there’s a mechanism for the ATC to communicate with the operator. In future iterations of the program, the ATC may have that same communication and control ability to respond to emergency situations for all pilots in the area, be they commercial or recreational pilots,” Fanelli said. “We think this will increase accountability and safety of all remote pilots and ultimately makes the NAS safer, even as we get more UAS into that airspace.”