Zones for drones

AirMap, Raytheon Technologies aim to make skies safer for drones, manned aircraft

If you’re in Washington, D.C., and thinking about flying your new drone, even just to take some fun footage for social media,  think again. You might get arrested, fined or even jailed.

That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration enforces a “No Drone Zone” within a 15-mile-radius ring in the National Capitol Region. It's among a number of other airspace restrictions for drones, including areas over stadiums, military bases, prisons, national landmarks, nuclear power plants and near airports.

The mobile app AirMap can help avoid trouble. It shows drone pilots where it’s safe to fly and where it’s not.

In June 2019, Raytheon Technnologies signed a strategic agreement with AirMap to collaborate on helping users safely fly small unmanned aerial systems in the National Airspace System.

“Currently, the FAA is making the rules concerning operating drones, but is allowing companies like AirMap to help manage flight planning, get authorizations to fly in restricted airspace and help pilots ensure they comply with rules and restrictions,” said Kip Spurio, managing director of air traffic systems at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a business of Raytheon Technologies. “With the proliferation of drones, we think that the FAA will need to get more involved so there aren’t conflicts between manned aircraft and drones.”

In 2018, the FAA predicted that the number of commercial small unmanned aircraft would reach 452,000 by 2022. But drone sales grew faster than expected, and the agency now expects that total to reach 1.66 million by 2023.

“There are more commercial drones than the number of registered civilian aircraft and military aircraft,” Spurio said. “Commercial drone operators are what we’re focusing on now, because they could be flying multiple times every day, where a hobbyist might get their drone out once or twice a month, if that.”

According to an FAA report, commercial drones are regularly used to carry out research and development, execute training-education missions and film events, and conduct industrial and utility aerial inspections. Drone use is growing among the real estate, construction, agriculture and media industries, and state and local governments are increasingly using drones in emergency services like search-and-rescue operations.

“Amazon is also experimenting with package delivery by drones, and hospitals have delivered organ transplants and medical supplies by drone,” Spurio said. “We envision autonomous flight will one day be the preeminent form of air transportation for all people and things.”

Spurio said Raytheon Technologies and AirMap have been in talks for a few years about how to maintain safety as more drones fly in the National Airspace System. AirMap is the leading global provider of airspace intelligence for unmanned aerial system operations, he said, with more than 250,000 registered users.

In 2018, the majority of U.S. registered commercial drone pilots used AirMap to request more than 45,000 automated authorizations to fly in controlled airspace. The company app also allows recreational flyers to request such authorizations through the FAA's Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability system.

Raytheon Technologies’ Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, or STARS, which is used by air traffic controllers across the U.S. for aircraft spacing and sequencing guidance, will be a key technology in any AirMap and Raytheon Technologies endeavor. Drones operate at 400 feet and below, which is within STARS coverage areas near airports.

The two companies are planning a demonstration to showcase how AirMap's unmanned aircraft traffic management platform can increase safety by monitoring drone operations and manned aircraft traffic near airports. There have been several highly publicized cases of unauthorized drones buzzing around major international airports, both in the U.S. and overseas.

“We believe that drones are the ideal place to begin proving out how automation can support this future of aviation,” AirMap co-founder and Chairman Ben Marcus said, adding that he considers Raytheon Technologies “to really be a pioneer in air traffic management.”

The sky is no longer the limit. We’ll soon be seeing new entrants into the National Airspace System, Marcus said, including “flying taxi” services, space planes and supersonic aircraft.

“I’m standing outside right now in Austin, looking in a 360-degree direction, and I don’t see any airplanes,” he said. “The sky is this vast, underutilized resource...Our goal, really, is to be able to elevate humanity into three dimensions. Let’s make the future of flight part of everyday life.”