Take a look at this...
You're probably wondering what the absolute mess in the above picture is. Well... it is a bit of a mess. It's a sectional chart for the area of the Colorado Front Range extending from Boulder to Colorado Springs, which, thanks to DIA, also happens to be one of the busiest pieces of airspace in the country - hence all the clutter. Sectional charts are like maps of the air. If you have good enough eyes and sufficient observational powers, you've probably noticed it's very sparse on ground details. So let's get located before I try to explain anything or make a point.
Boulder is in that little red circle that's partially cut off. There's a red circle there because a temporary flight restriction (TFR) was in place at the time I took the screen shot. As mentioned in our last blog post, stadiums with a capacity of 30,000 or more people automatically become temporary restricted airspace for a 3 nautical mile radius that extends from the ground up to 3,000ft above the ground, anytime an event is in progress. This restriction applies to all aircraft, manned aircraft included, which is why it's shown so prevalently on a chart intended for use by traditional aircraft pilots.
Denver is the large yellow blob below Boulder. This yellow area represents not just downtown Denver, but densely populated surface areas in general. As such, it extends both above and below downtown Denver to include nearly all large, surrounding towns from Broomfield all the way down to Centennial.
Colorado Springs is the smaller yellow blob towards the bottom of the map. And in between the two yellow areas, the FAA doesn't seem to think enough people live there to warrant pilots giving a bother (just kidding).
If you want to learn more about how to read sectional charts, Cessna Chick has a great post on the subject here: http://cessnachick.com/525-2/ - which is written at a far more elementary and easy to understand level than the FAA's own educational materials. These charts are something that licensed drone operators are required to be able to read.
If you don't want to learn how to read a sectional (and I certainly can't blame you), but you still want to understand why airspace authorizations matter, here's a much simpler looking airspace map of roughly the same area:
This map is obviously infinitely easier to both get oriented on and read information that's more relevant to what I'd like to discuss: controlled airspace authorizations for commercial drone use. The large colored shapes on this map show areas of controlled airspace that extend from the ground up to various heights (the small, orange ones are heliports, prisons, power plants, and other categories that can be ignored for this topic). The prior map showed controlled airspace areas at many different altitudes, but for drone operation all that's really relevant is how airspace is classified from the 0-400ft, since that's the legal operating range for commercial drones. From the ground is the important qualification here. Each of these airspace areas are controlled and their use restricted because they surround airports and are subject to high air traffic as well as low-flying manned aircraft making approaches and departures from those airports.
Bottom line here... commercial drone operations are not permitted inside any of those large, colored shapes on the above map. This is any commercial drone operations - there are no exclusions for "well I'm not going to go too high" or "I'll stick close to this building", because this controlled airspace starts at the ground. Looking around the map, it quickly becomes obvious why this issue should be so important for a business or individual in the Front Range looking to hire a drone operator. A significant portion of the populated Front Range is covered by controlled airspace and not legal for commercial drone flights, including nearly all new development in and east of Stapleton, much of Aurora, most of Broomfield, Superior, Louisville, and northern Arvada, nearly the entirety of Centennial, Lone Tree, Castle Pines, Castle Rock, and Greenwood Village, as well as most of metro Colorado Springs. How many of your construction, development, and commercial real estate projects fall in those areas?
Thankfully, the FAA saw this potential, massive hindrance to drone operations and decided to do something about it. The FAA has setup a system that allows for licensed, commercial drone operators to apply for permission to fly in these areas. The process requires that the licensed operator:
1. Show the FAA that they have a thorough understanding of the potential hazards of operating in controlled airspace.
2. Detail a plan to maintain adequate separation with manned aircraft in order to avoid a collision.
3. Prove that the drone in use has sufficient fail-safes to avoid an incident with a manned aircraft in the case of an emergency (loss of control signal, loss of video feed, etc.)
The process is neither easy nor quick, but it is in place. An application must be approved by both the FAA and the local airport's air traffic control manager. As such, this process must be repeated for each and every area of controlled airspace. Turn around times on an approved authorization vary from 60-120 days - these are not something an operator can acquire overnight. If an operator doesn't currently have one, they won't have one for many months. If the application is denied, the operator must start from square one.
Where's the silver lining and shameless plug? Right here: we have them all. We have applied and successfully been approved for flight authorizations for every Front Range airport from Fort Collins (not on the map in this post) to Colorado Springs, including DIA itself. If you have a project that requires a drone in one of these areas, we can fly it - right now. Not in two months. Not in four months. Not today, but illegally. We are FAA approved to fly your project, anywhere in the Front Range.
Have questions or want to know more? Leave a comment, drop us an email, or feel free to call and chat.