Drone journalists just got some very good news. The FAA says that this year it will begin offering "instant authorization" for drone flights in controlled airspace. It will start what is called Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC, in select cities. By the end of the year, 50 cities will be included.
In an article for Forbes, Pepperdine professor Gregory McNeal, a leading voice in drone technology, said that the first big city airports that will provide instant approval will be Cincinnati, Phoenix, and Miami. A few mid-sized Class C airports, including Lincoln, Nebraska and San Jose, California, will also be in the first round trials. Most of the first instant approval sites will be the smallest Class E airports, including Norfolk (Virginia) Regional Airport, Mankato (Minnesota) Regional Airport and Mason City (Iowa) Municipal Airport
This is great news for journalists who are covering a story within five miles of a big airport and can't fly a drone without a waiver. Even if government paperwork flows your way right now, it could take 90 days to get a waiver.
The new system is part of a concept called unmanned traffic management that drone visionaries have pushed for years. The UTM process will factor in how much the airspace is controlled, it will factor in weather, local restrictions and public safety (for example, are there lots of people living or gathering nearby?)
Right now, every decision about whether the FAA will grant a waiver to its set flight rules has to be done manually by a human who reads the request and makes a ruling. But with millions of drones in private hands, the requests are going to become so large the FAA will never be able to handle it all manually. Last November, tech companies including AirMap, Amazon, ANRA Technologies, Simulyze, Skycart and Transtrex, demonstrated how their UTM programs would work. Airmap's website shows how the system would work from filing a waiver to getting the FAA's response.
Matt Waite, the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, also leads the Drone Journalism Schools that Poynter organizes with our partners NPPA, DJI and Google News Lab.
"The single largest impediment to journalists using drones for breaking news is access to airspace," he said. "When it can take months to get approval from the FAA, that just doesn't work for most news uses. This is a giant leap toward drones being a common part of your local news."
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