AirMap: App Helps Drone Flyers Navigate Airspace Restrictions

When a government worker was investigated by the Secret Service for crashing a small drone on the White House lawn in January, most people probably thought, “How dumb could the guy be?” After all, he could have avoided any hassle just by flying the small recreational quadcopter in a park or an open field somewhere. Right?

Think again, air rights legal expert Gregory McNeal says. No matter where you are in the United States, the sky is divided into complex layers of government-regulated zones with invisible boundaries, he says. Those layers begin at ground level, and if your drone crosses into the wrong zone, you could be in trouble.

That’s why McNeal and his partner, aviation entrepreneur and flight instructor Ben Marcus, created AirMap, the free app they just launched to help U.S. drone operators navigate through the national airspace system. McNeal says El Segundo, CA-based AirMap could help drone enthusiasts avoid hefty fines—and unintended catastrophes such as causing a low-flying rescue helicopter to crash.

Ordinary consumers are often surprised to learn that flying the drone they bought at a hobby shop for some fun with the kids is an activity regulated not only by the Federal Aviation Administration, but also by state and local governments, park districts, and other agencies, McNeal (pictured above) says.

McNeal, an aviation geek as early as his high school days, became a law professor at Pepperdine University and an expert researcher on the regulatory environment for drones and other small unmanned aircraft. As the consumer market for drones was accelerating in 2012, McNeal saw problems ahead.

“In two to three years we’re going to be asking the average person who bought one of these things on Amazon to understand these complex aviation regulations,” McNeal says he realized at the time.

By late last year, the Consumer Electronics Association was predicting that global revenues for consumer drones would approach $130 million in 2015, a projected 55 percent increase compared to 2014. Five years from now, revenues could exceed $1 billion, CES foresees.

While the Federal Aviation Administration publishes aeronautical charts of the national airspace system up to 60,000 feet, that’s too much information for a recreational drone user to interpret, McNeal says. AirMap strips away the top layers—where passenger jets fly, for example—to show only the flight restrictions from the ground level up to 500 feet—the region where drones actually operate.

AirMap also gives street-level detail of the boundaries of restricted zones, unlike the scale of FAA charts designed to help aircraft pilots navigate around whole cities, McNeal says. Drone operators need that higher resolution to find out exactly which fields, or specific blocks on a street, are outside the five-mile radius around an airport, for example. The invisible boundary line might fall right through the middle of an intersection or a local park, McNeal says.

“You could be in one part of the park and be fine, but in another part you’d be in violation,” McNeal says.

Current regulations require recreational operators to notify airport officials in advance when they plan to fly their drones within the protected five-mile limit, McNeal says. Without permission, they risk FAA action and fines of as much as $10,000, he says. Even if you’re clear of the airport perimeter, though, the park itself might have its own no-fly rules.

AirMap Graphic

AirMap Graphic

An AirMap page for a heavily populated area might show overlapping restricted zones, leaving only a few slivers of land where drones can fly free. That’s the case in San Mateo, CA. Most of the city falls within the protected zones around both San Francisco International Airport and San Carlos Airport to the south. The free territory for consumer drones narrows to a skinny corridor around 9th Avenue.

McNeal and Marcus had consumers in mind when they began assembling AirMap, but commercial drone operators often need the same kind of street-level information provided by its customizable displays, McNeal says. For example, realtors use drones to capture images of individual houses for sale.

Those commercial uses are expanding under FAA rules that now allow businesses to apply for special permissions to fly in civil airspace. As of April 29, the agency had granted at least 247 of these permissions, called exemptions, to companies ranging from movie studios with drone-mounted cameras to insurance companies that send drones to check on property damage.

The growing consumer and commercial market for drones may account for the flurry of public feedback after AirMap’s launch on April 30, McNeal says. Within a few days, a dozen companies had e-mailed McNeal, and he and Marcus are setting up meetings with them about possible collaborations or partnerships, he says.

Drone manufacturers such as Berkeley, CA-based 3D Robotics or the global drone company DJI, headquartered in China, could plug into AirMap’s data to voluntarily set automatic operating restrictions on their small aircraft, McNeal says. One major manufacturer already restrains its drones from flying over the White House, he says.

Money wasn’t the original driver for the AirMap project, which was 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.

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

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