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.
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office predicts between 400,000 and 2.3 million licensed Part 107 operators by 2020. Although automation is in development to process the large number of requests that facilities anticipate, it is not expected to be operational until 2018. In order to mitigate the impact of authorizing numerous requests on individual ATC facilities, FAA Headquarters has developed a procedure for the authorization of Part 107 Operations. Using input from ATC facilities, areas in which Part 107 Operators may fly without impact to manned aircraft operations and procedures for the approval/denial of applications have been developed and described in this order (effective October 3, 2016).
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.
B. Facility Responsibilities 1. General. In the event a Part 107 operator contacts an ATC facility directly for authorization, the facility must not issue authorization. The facility must direct the operator to the FAA UAS website, http://www.faa.gov/uas.
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.
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.
Here’s more from the ATO Policy:
Chapter 4. Part 107, sUAS Operations
A. Headquarters Airspace Authorization Procedures.
1. Headquarters, on the facility’s behalf, will use the UAS Facility Maps (UASFM) to evaluate Part 107 requests based on the location and altitudes authorized by the facility.
a. If requests are authorized using the UASFM, no facility coordination is required.
b. If Headquarters is unable to authorize the request using the UASFM, they must coordinate with the facility.
c. Full time Class E surface areas are processed at Headquarters. Headquarters coordination with facilities will not be required for Class E surface area approval.
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”.
This is a big deal. A really big deal. This is the FAA entering the 21st century.