AirMap: App Helps Drone Flyers Navigate Airspace Restrictions

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self-funded, McNeal says. But there’s evident demand from a number of different quarters for a visual airspace roadmap tailored for drone operators, he says. After the AirMap launch, towns and cities asked if their own airspace regulations could be incorporated into the map. People wanted to know when AirMap would cover Europe, Canada, and Australia. (The answer: the company plans to expand AirMap into other countries soon.) One possible revenue source for AirMap would be a grant or fee to support data additions to the map, McNeal says.

The company would need to look for outside funding if it wanted to scale up and expand AirMap’s scope extensively, McNeal says.

Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus

“We can see where conversations with investors would lead,” McNeal says. His partner Marcus, an entrepreneur who co-founded the aircraft brokerage firm jetAVIVA, is leading business development activities for AirMap.

The digital map, still in beta testing, invites users to send in suggestions. AirMap not only shows the fixed zones across the United States where airspace access is controlled, but also displays temporary flight restrictions due to specific events. These restrictions might be imposed when the President visits a city, or during emergencies such as industrial explosions or wildfires.

The digital map also pinpoints U.S. hospital and school locations. Even if local regulations don’t forbid overflights there, drone operators might want to keep their small aircraft away from those buildings voluntarily, McNeal says.

AirMap also offers something to privacy-seeking individuals who don’t want drones flying around their homes—they can sign up with NoFlyZone.org, a related project that McNeal and Marcus launched on Feb. 15. Homes registered on NoFlyZone.org appear on AirMap. At least 25,000 people have signed up.

Drone operators aren’t legally bound to avoid the listed properties, McNeal says. But one goal of AirMap is to help drone users show voluntary consideration for others, which might reduce resistance to broader adoption of the technology, McNeal says.

But what will happen in the future if crowds of consumer and commercial drones are deployed throughout cities, suburbs, farms, and industrial lands? Companies such as Amazon and Google are eager to use drones for deliveries, and other businesses see them as vehicles for inspecting everything from traffic to mines to crops. Current regulations may keep drones from colliding with helicopters and jets, but what will stop them from crashing into each other?

NASA is currently designing possible systems to coordinate the movements of low-altitude, unmanned aircraft through a project nicknamed UTM (Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management). McNeal, a participant in the project, says drone operators may some day file flight plans to such a system, which would then “carve out a tube of airspace for you.” This process might be automated, rather than duplicating the manned air traffic control systems that now coordinate the routes of large aircraft in and out of airports. NASA is aiming to develop a prototype UTM sytem by 2019.

In the meantime, the FAA is mulling rules that would determine how non-commercial drone operators—ordinary consumers—should qualify for the right to take up a share of the low-altitude airspace. McNeal says the FAA may confine drone hobbyists to designated model airfields. The agency may also push recreational drone users to obtain operator certificates—another move McNeal sees as a curb on the consumer market.

“I think that would be a real challenge to the recreation industry,” McNeal says.

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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