New pilots, aerial photographers, and people interested in the drone industry have all heard the overly-intimidating term, “controlled airspace.” This type of language leads many new drone pilots to believe that they simply cannot fly there, when in fact you absolutely may be able to – but only if you’re granted permission. This guide is meant to explain controlled airspace in a nutshell, how to request permission to fly in controlled airspace, and what to do on when you’re actually there on the day of your flight.
What is “Controlled” Airspace?
Controlled airspace is a generic term that covers the different classifications of airspace and defined dimensions within which air traffic control (ATC) service is provided. This includes Class A, B, C, D, and E airspace, which can be visualized using the one of the FAA’s airspace classification images below.
You really don’t need to concern yourself with Class A airspace – this doesn’t even begin until 18,000 ft above sea level, and then extends even higher. As a drone pilot, you can only fly 400 ft above ground level (AGL), so you’ve got plenty of separation between you and Class A airspace (like, over three miles of separation, so don’t sweat Class A). This is where the commercial airlines will spend most of their time when transporting passengers.
Class B airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 10,000 ft above sea level (MSL). This is the airspace surrounding our nation’s busiest airports, and as such, creates the largest funnel (commonly referred to as an upside-down wedding cake). Stepping back from the visual for one moment, this idea of having the largest controlled airspace makes sense, right? If you’re at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), or the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), you’re going to have significantly more planes, and planes with larger passenger capacity, coming in and out of the airport. These volume and size of these planes will require the airport to provide more time and distance to land and take off, requiring a larger section of controlled airspace.
Class C airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 4,000 ft MSL surrounding airports that have an operational control tower, are serviced by radar approach control, and have a certain number of instrument flight rules (IFR) operations or passenger enplanements. In other words, Class C airports have fewer planes departing than the large international hubs that exist in Class B airspace – they aren’t “small”, but they are smaller than Class B airports and as such, have a smaller section of controlled airspace.
Class D airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 2,500 ft MSL, surrounding airports with an operational control tower. You’ll notice that Class D airspace is just one tall cylinder in the visual created by the FAA – without prior authorization, remote drone pilots can’t fly in any Class D airspace since it always starts at the surface, whereas in Class B and C airspace, the outer layers of the airspace have a gap between their floors and the surface, potentially allowing drone pilots to operate there.
Class E airspace is the controlled airspace not classified as Class A, B, C, or D airspace. Class E airspace can either begin at 700 ft AGL, 1,200 ft AGL, or at the surface. This makes up a significant volume of the airspace over the United States, but of the three types of Class E airspace, the only type that drone pilots need authorization to operate in, is lateral surface Class E airspace around an airport.
For more information on controlled airspace, or to learn more about uncontrolled airspace, take a look at our blog post on navigating the different types of airspace.
How To Conduct Airspace Research & Request Authorization Through LAANC
Prior to conducting a flight operation, you’ll need to determine whether or not the location where you plan to fly has any airspace restrictions that would prevent you from legally flying there. If you’re really interested, it can be helpful to first take a detailed look at where you’ll be flying by digging into a digital sectional chart, like VFRMap.com. If you’re unfamiliar with that tool and you’re studying for the Part 107 Exam, you should take a look at our Part 107 Test Prep Course, where we use VFRMap.com extensively to perform airspace research.
For a more practical tool used by many remote pilots, we’ll start with AirMap.
First, go to AirMap.com, and if you haven’t created an account, go ahead and do so now. Next, click the “Plan A Flight” button in the upper right corner.
Next, type in the address of the location where you’re planning your flight.
We’re going to travel to Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, GA.
If you zoom out over Georgia Tech (Go Jackets!), you’ll note that it is almost entirely surrounded by airports of varying sizes. So while you could fly at Georgia Tech, let’s pretend that you wanted to fly a little farther South in the outskirts of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL).
In the corner segment of the Class B airspace around ATL, as you can see from the image, we can receive automated authorization to fly up to 400 ft AGL. Next, click the “+” button on the top left corner of the screen – this is how we’re going to plan our flight
At this point, your screen should be split into three segments. On the left, we’ve got our standard map view, where we can pick up and move around the dot that represents where we intend on launching our aircraft from for our flight operation.
In the upper right corner, you’ll see a quasi-street view perspective, to show a much closer view of where exactly we’ve placed our dot. This will update as you move around the dot in the main map view.
In the bottom right corner, you’ll see a scrollable section of the page where you’ll need to fill out details around the altitude you would like permission to fly up to, the date & time, the pilot & aircraft you’ll be using, and a few additional questions around the context of your flight. Once you’re done, you click the “Brief Flight Plan” button in the bottom right corner of your screen, and review & submit your flight plan on the next page. Note that if you didn’t appropriately fill out the requested information, your flight plan will be rejected.
After you’ve submitted your flight plan, you’ll get a text notification once it’s approved, at which point you’ve officially received authorization via LAANC for your flight operation! If you’re curious about other LAANC-approved organizations, or want more information on LAANC, check out our blog post on how to use LAANC.
Is LAANC the only option for airspace authorization?
Technically no, but it’s what you’ll end up using the most. First off, not all airports in the U.S. are LAANC-compatible (yet), and while LAANC can handle the vast majority of operations that remote pilots intend on flying, some are just too complex or atypical for immediate authorization.
The alternative to LAANC is called DroneZone. For quick and easy near-instantaneous authorization for simple one-off flights, LAANC is what you need. However, if you’re looking to operate for a longer period of time in a given area, requesting authorization (note, we’re not discussing waivers here) via DroneZone is your best bet. One of the most significant determining factors here has to do with time; in LAANC, your requests are only valid for 12 hours, but authorizations via DroneZone can last for over one full year.
What if I want to get airspace authorization and a Part 107 waiver?
We get this question a lot – the FAA doesn’t currently allow LAANC authorizations to be combined with any Part 107 waivers, such as Part 107.29 (waiver for night operations). If you’re looking for a Part 107 waiver, you’ll need to submit it on DroneZone, but the order of operations here actually matters.
According to the FAA, if you intend on using a non-airspace Part 107 waiver in controlled airspace (e.g. night operations waiver), you first need to obtain your Part 107 waiver, prior to requesting airspace authorization or airspace waiver.
It’s worth noting that the process of receiving a Part 107 waiver is not instantaneous, and usually takes months. If this is something that you’ll need for your proposed flight operation, make sure you plan in advance.
How to Unlock my DJI Drone to Fly in Controlled Airspace
Depending on where you want to fly, your DJI drone might not permit you to take off unless you’ve already performed a custom unlock or self-unlock in advance of your flight operation. We’ve already written an extensive step-by-step blog post on how you can take care of this, and encourage you to take a look at it to clear up any confusion you might have!
- What if I mess up? How will ATC facilities get in touch with me if there’s an issue or a problem?
When you submit your airspace authorization request, you are required to provide valid contact information. If the ATC needs to get in touch with you, this is how they will reach out.
- Can I just reach out to ATC directly for airspace authorization?
No, the FAA requires that all airspace authorization requests come through LAANC or FAA DroneZone.
- Can the FAA cancel my airspace authorization after it has been approved?
It is possible, yes. The FAA may reach out to an sUAS operator if operational conditions have changed and the sUAS operation needs to be canceled or temporarily suspended. That being said, they won’t do this for small occurrences – we’re talking about unexpected incidents involving national security, protection of loss of property or life, or air safety. They will get in touch with you using the phone number in the airspace authorization request.
Get Certified to Fly Commercially
The Dronegenuity Part 107 Test Prep Course does a deep dive into all of the topics that are covered on the FAA’s Part 107 Exam. This exam is required for drone users who intend on using their drone commercially. In other words, if you intend on making money with your drone, this course sets you up to take the FAA’s exam and get your certification. We’ll cover topics such as FAA regulations, weather, radio communications, sectional charts (of course), the national airspace system, and more. Enroll now to take your first step towards FAA certification.
We’d love to hear from you if you want to learn more about the benefits of aerial drone photography for the real estate industry. If you’re interested in obtaining your Part 107 Commercial Drone License or other drone training courses, please contact us at Dronegenuity today! We offer professional aerial photography services, performed by FAA licensed drone operators for customers of all sizes. All of the work that we do is completely customized and we make the process simple and convenient.