How one FAA order is inhibiting the drone industry from truly taking flight and making every US Airport more dangerous.

Paul Alexander

Written By: Paul Aitken, Cohost of the Ask DroneU Podcast, Author Livin’ the Drone Life. AND

Vic Moss, DroneU instructor & Owner Moss Photography

When the FAA announced last year that they had opened the floodgates for the drone industry, many of us drone pilots applauded. We had been waiting a long time for regulations that were not only enforceable, but reasonable. However, the floodgates never truly opened; this statement was truly disingenuous. In this article, we are going to discuss why the drone industry is truly being held back and by what.

In the February of 2015 Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), it was proposed that in order to ensure safety near airports, drone pilots would need to gain permission to fly in controlled airspace. Since most U.S. cities are covered in restricted airspace, it was necessary that there be a workflow for UAS pilots to fly in the area.

Technically the NPRM stated, “Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.” That sounded great to those already flying. Many of us already had relationships with our local air traffic controller, and figured it would be a simple process based on the written law. We all believed acquiring permission would be just like how it is in manned aviation. Call the tower, get permission in minutes. We quickly learned our positive assumptions were about to fall out of the sky.

Here’s an example of how simple it is for manned aircraft. Let’s say a family has flown their Cessna 182 down to the Florida Keys from Tampa over Spring break. It’s a beautiful morning over Key Largo, and they decide they’d like to take a sightseeing flight out and over the Gulf of Mexico, and look for sailboats. The pilot performs a preflight inspection, checks weather, airspace, and finishes a once over on the aircraft. He fires up the engine, does the engine tests, then lines up in the designated area to call the tower for permission to take off. Normally these smaller airports are class D or C, and within seconds of calling ATC they receive an answer, and permission to fly in that airspace is granted.

Even today, the rules for hobbyist drone pilots and commercial drone pilots varies greatly. For anyone who just buys a drone off the Christmas shelves, they can just call ATC and announce the flight…not even requiring permission to fly.

Now, for a commercial drone pilot flying under their 107 Remote Pilot Certificate, that process is slightly more complicated, and much, much less short. But before I get into that, let’s look at the final wording of the CFR 14 Part 107 when it comes to Airspace authorization. Remember, in the federal registry it says “Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.” There was no specific method proposed. So no one was worried about the coming complexity. For that matter, no one was even considering how complex the FAA would make that process.

On June 28, 2016, CFR 14, Part 107 was published in the Federal Registry, thus making it law. It went into effect on 8/29/16. Part of that law followed the NPRM, and the summary mentioned for ATC permission concerning sUA operations in controlled airspace. Specifically those airspaces are designated B, C, D, and E to the surface. That permission was to come from ATC. Specifically, on page 50 of the published registry, it states: “In considering whether to grant permission to a small UAS to fly in controlled airspace, ATC will consider the specific nature of the small UAS operation and risk the operation poses to other air traffic in that controlled airspace. ATC facilities have the authority to approve or deny aircraft operations based on traffic density, controller workload, communications issues, or any other type of operation that would potentially impact the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic.

Pay special attention to the part that says, “ATC facilities have the authority to approve or deny aircraft operations”. That wording is from the published federal registry (the big government law book) and expressly gives ATC facilities authority to give drone (uav or suas) operators permission to fly within their controlled airspace. There really isn’t any other way to interpret that.

So far, everything seems like it’s going to run smoothly, and Part 107 pilots can help do their part in keeping the controlled airspace in the NAS safe. That’s something we trained pilots take pride in being able to do. And we looked forward to doing our part.

Then apparently, the UAS Integration office of the National FAA office in Washington D.C. decided that was too easy. At least that’s what many of us who hold drone licenses feel. The national FAA office released an order that would soon turn around the entire interpretation.

On October 23rd, 2016, FAA order JO 7200.23 went into effect. JO 7200.23 is the official order for how local ATC personnel are instructed to handle sUA calls to their facilities, both hobby (101) and commercial (107). Section B, paragraph 1 of that order states:

“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, www.faa.gov/uas.”

That is in DIRECT conflict to the very wording of the published federal law, as shown above. This order was initiated by the FAA’s Emerging Technology Team, and signed on August 19th by Heather H., Director of Air Traffic Procedures.

And if that’s not bad enough, the web address above leads to the FAA sUAS page, and that directs pilots to the Authorization/Waiver Portal. That portal has done more to make airspace around busy airports less safe than any other single decision ever made by D.C. FAA personnel.

The airspace authorization portal requires a 90 day lead time. And the FAA office that is in charge of granting those authorizations have summarily denied many authorization requests simply because they didn’t have a 90 day advance notice. Many of us have form letter denials in the inboxes on our computers stating that very thing. We were denied simply because we didn’t give the FAA 90 days notice when we had a client that needed to us to fly a property.

In the imagery business, a 90 day advance notice is virtually unheard of. But that’s just one of the issues with the FAA portal.

The portal processes themselves are confusing, and the supplied instructions do very little to clarify the issues. And there is no confirmation of a submittal for either the authorizations or the waiver applications. You get to the end of the process and hit the “submit” button, and that’s it. You have no idea if you did it right, or even if it went to someone’s computer in D.C. I even get a confirmation from Pizza Hut when I order my large Pan Supreme online. How can any submission website not give it’s customer a confirmation? And make no bones about it, we are customers of the FAA. But as with most government bureaucracies, customer service is pretty much non-existent.

The official reason for the order (JO 7200.23) described was that DC FAA felt local ATC may not have the time and personnel to deal with the onslaught of expected calls from 107 Pilots asking for permission. To my knowledge, ATC personnel were never asked for input on this decision.

You may ask why the FAA wants to make controlled airspace less safe. I can say with virtual certainty that was not their goal. However, since they never asked for input from the people who will be the end users, this is exactly what happened.

Let’s recap ATC permissions:

  • Manned aviation (100% trained and TSA vetted), 10 minutes, and a radio discussion with ATC;
  • drone hobbyists (mostly untrained and unvetted), 2 minutes and a phone call with local airport personnel;
  • sUA commercial (100% trained and TSA vetted), 20–30 minutes online with up to a 90 days before approval (or denial), and zero human interaction and zero confirmation if anyone will even look at your application.

So now you know why so many 107 sUA pilots feel that the FAA has actually made the skies around our airports less safe by enacting the portal system. And by the way, many ATC and FSDO personnel feel the same way. Some we have talked to have actually said that they have lost a large part of their responsibility to keep people in the sky safe, and that makes them nervous. Obviously though, none of them will go on the record stating as such.

For example, suppose a Realtor has called a 107 pilot they regularly work with to shoot a home that’s in Delta airspace. The pilot needs to be about 50’ above the home to shoot part of the video, yet will be no higher than barely above the roofline for most of the time. According to the FAA we need to now go online, fill out the portal form (with correct GPS heading), know the weather ahead of time (yeah, right), and then tell the customer, “I’ll let you know what they say, it may be 90 days though.

That agent is not going to be able to accept those terms. One of three things is going to happen, the shoot will be cancelled (losing income for the pilot), the Realtor will hire a non qualified pilot (who doesn’t call ATC), or the 107 pilot will do it because they know they are perfectly safe where they are, and they don’t want to lose the client. The third scenario is the best one, yet the 107 pilot risks losing their permit. Most 107 Pilots are going to refuse that job, and lose the money, knowing full well that they may be endangering local controlled airspace. We try to educate the clients, but since there is no recourse for their decision for them, it makes no difference to them.

Again, the FAA Airspace Authorization/Waiver Application portal has made the crowded airspace around airports less safe, in direct contradiction to the FAA’s own stated mission. And JO 7200.23 is worded in DIRECT conflict with the wording in 14 CFR 107.

The FAA’s response to this is that they are working on making an app based system where you just log in when you get on location and gain automatic approval for the flight. That’s great, but the development process for that app didn’t even start until weeks after the portal became the only official process for airspace approval. And it’s not expected to come online until mid summer of 2017. However, given the FAA’s inability to meet a deadline (Part 107 was over 3 years late), meeting that deadline is dubious. Additionally, given the FAA’s dismal record with aviation apps (B4UFly is an industry joke), the likelihood of it even working correctly is remote at best.

Another issue is the portal system is based on a grid map that each airport (except DOD airports) setup. It shows the maximum allowable AGL for each grid that can be approved without further local ATC communication from DC FAA personnel. The FAA has decided that those maps are for internal use only, and may not be released publicly. If the FAA would release them, and allow 107 pilots to base their initial decisions on them, it would save the DC FAA time in dealing with applications that would obviously be denied.

While there is quite a bit wrong with the FAA Portal system, in theory it’s an awesome system. But in theory a bumblebee cannot fly.

The system itself is a great idea, but the implementation is an abysmal failure. And I’m not one to over dramatize, but that system is terribly broken.

Rather than be the type of people who just complain and not give a solution, we in the industry feel the solution is quite simple, and can easily be implemented in as little as one week. Seriously, 7 days from now we could easily be flying safe missions inside controlled airspace with full knowledge and approval of the controlling authority of that particular airspace.

This would take two teams of FAA employees to pull off.

First team would take all of the grid maps for civilian airports and put them online in PDF form so 107 Pilots could download them to check and see if they can safely fly there, as determined by local ATC sUA POCs (Point of Contacts). I know enough about website construction to know that all you would need is an additional page on www.faa.gov/uas that shows each grid map. Cross reference them to airport call letters, and by state.

Second team, comprised of the FAA Emerging Technologies Team, and headed up by Ms. Hemdal, would draft a new FAA Order that supersedes 7200.23 telling ATC personnel that they now have the authority to approve or deny sUA missions based on the criteria in 14 CFR Part 107. After all, the FAA believes that local ATC have the best ability to approve those mission “based on traffic density, controller workload, communications issues, or any other type of operation that would potentially impact the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic”.

FAA, we Part 107 Pilots are not the enemy (neither are 101 operators, but that’s a different story). We want to work with you. We are the new kids on the block and we understand that many manned pilots and longtime FAA bureaucrats are fearful of our little machines. That fear is based on ignorance (not the pejorative ignorance, but the lack of knowledge kind). But we want to do our part to help keep the skies safe. We self police as asked by the FAA. We educate as asked by the FAA. We even turn in reckless operators as asked by the FAA (as a last resort).

The FAA can’t ignore us either, there are more registered drones in the United States than there are manned aircraft or registered pilots. On top of that DJI is selling 40,000 drones a week. Drones out number aircraft almost 5–1.

We are officially (and publicly) asking you to amend JO 7200.23, and release the airspace grids for the civilian airports. If that were to happen, we could use our (required) training to help your own local ATC Personnel keep safe the skies under their control.

And if that were to happen, it would go a long way to repairing the rift created by the FAA’s perceived dismissal of the rapidly growing (I’d say exploding, but that conjures up a poor mental image)drone industry in the United States.

We’re hoping to make this change before something really bad happens, like an accident or crash. We can change this industry for the better, let’s work together.

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