In 2017, the FAA launched the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system. Before LAANC, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get approval to fly near airports or other areas with controlled airspace. The system made life for commercial drone pilots much easier, but LAANC is still not without its challenges.
If you are new to commercial drone operations, you may not be familiar with the system. Essentially, LAANC gives us a method for quick approval when flying in controlled airspace. When the system was implemented, controlled airspace was cut up into small grid squares. Each square was given a number that indicated the max altitude allowed by LAANC. For example, a square labeled with the number 200 means you can get approval to fly no higher than 200 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) reasonably quickly.
Squares near the outside of the controlled airspace typically have higher numbers, with 400 feet AGL being the max. As you get closer to the reason for the controlled airspace, an airport, for example, the numbers are usually smaller, with zero beginning the lowest. If you need to fly in a square with a zero in it, LAANC will not automatically allow you to fly there. The important thing to remember with LAANC is that the system has made it much easier for us to fly in restricted airspace, but sometimes you need to do a little extra work to get approval.
So, does that mean you can never fly your drone in that area? Thankfully, the answer is no. The FAA has made it possible to get permission to still fly in these restricted areas as long as you are willing to do a little bit of work. Let's look at what it takes to get approved to fly your drone in a LAANC zero grid square.
Before getting into the specifics of being granted approval, it's important to make sure you are ready to start the process. Remember that a grid square is labeled as zero because aircraft are either taking off or landing near that location. If you are hoping to get FAA approval to fly in a zero grid, you will need to prove you are a professional and safe pilot.
Once you have decided on a location where you need to fly, think of every detail related to the mission. How high will you need to fly? How far from the center grid will you need to be (flight radius)? What equipment will you be using? When you have collected all the details, it's time to request approval.
Usually, you can quickly get LAANC approval through one of the many apps that help clear access to LAANC controlled airspace. If you are not looking for approval in zero grid squares, I recommend using the Aloft app (formerly Kittyhawk) for most of your airspace requests. Aloft processes around 50% or more of all LAANC requests each month. The app is easy to use and, in many cases, can provide real-time approval almost instantly.
For grid squares with a zero in them, you will need to go directly to the FAA. Your first stop is the FAA DroneZone website. It may seem like a zero grid would mean there is no chance of approval but if you look around your grid and see 100 or 200 grids next to it, LAANC is already making exceptions for flying in controlled space. You definitely have a shot at getting approved as well.
Submitting a request via the website will require you to have a login. If you have not used the site before, make sure to set up an account. This should be the same login you use to register your drones, view your Part 107 information, keep track of any waivers you may have, and submit accident reports (hopefully, you will never need to use that option).
Navigate to DroneZone to begin:
A popup box will appear that allows you to choose one of three applications to start:
The first screen you see will allow you to write a title for the request.
Remember to use a professional title, as this will be what the FAA sees in the request. “Crash & Burn” or “Need for Speed” are not good options. Below the Operation Title bar, you should see your name and contact information. You will be listed as the responsible party for the request. When ready, click the blue "Next" button.
This section of the airspace authorization request will cover the operation parameters for the mission. Think of this portion as where you plead your case to the FAA. Be as detailed as possible and remember to include anything that shows you are a professional and safe pilot. For example, if you will have a visual observer with you during your flight and will monitor all radio traffic from the tower, these are good indicators that you want to make the flight as safe as possible.
When selecting the date for your mission, you must choose either today's date or one no further than two years into the future. Remember that someone at the FAA will need to review this. While you might get lucky with a speedy turnaround, in most cases, you should give the FAA at least a week to review your request before the date you will fly, assuming you are approved. More time is better, especially when you are requesting to fly in a zero grid LAANC location.
In the time frame section, you can select from one to all four of the options listed. Only request the timeframes you need. The less complicated your request is, the better the chance it will get approved. The following sections are pretty straightforward. Just remember to keep it simple. If you only need to fly as high as 100 feet AGL, don't ask for 200 feet AGL. The same is true for the radius. If you only need 1/10 of a NM, ask for that and nothing more.
When you get to the section titled "Description of Your Proposed Operation," take your time and explain all the details of how you plan to operate your drone and maintain a safe flight. Put yourself in the shoes of the FAA here. What would you want to know before allowing a pilot to fly in zero grid airspace? Think of every question the FAA might like to ask you and address it in this section. After writing a description that will instill confidence with the FAA, answer the final questions and select the blue "Next" button.
You now have a chance to review all the information you entered on the previous pages. Don't assume you entered everything correctly. Take the time to check the entire page and make any necessary changes. Additionally, you will notice there is a button for adding attachments in the top right section of the screen. If you have KML or KMZ files, make sure to attach them. Once you are confident that all the information is correct, you can click the submit button.
You will get an email that lets you know the FAA has received your application. This does not mean you have been approved. You will get another message from the FAA that either approves or denies the request. If they decide to deny the request, they will not provide you with the reason they did not approve your flight. This is why it is essential to make sure all the details are correct when you submit a request to fly in zero grid airspace.
If you are denied, the best you can do is go back and try to make your flight less invasive. Perhaps you can lower your max altitude by 50 feet or shrink the radius. Make a few minor changes and see if it gets approved. If you take your time and have a reasonable request you have a good chance of getting a thumbs up from the FAA.
On a side note, if you fly DJI drones, you may have also run into issues with locked GEO Zones. This feature may make flying safer, but it can be pretty annoying to deal with if you are a professional pilot. To get past this feature, you must unlock the drone on the DJI website. Type "DJI Unlock" in Google or use the link to go directly to the DJI site.
As commercial drone pilots, our gigs will often find us within controlled airspace. With a bit of extra work, we can get approved to fly in most spaces. Remember to provide the FAA with everything they need to get an approval, and if you fly DJI drones, don't forget to unlock the GEO zones. Happy flying, even in zero-grid controlled airspace!