Only 20% to 30% of drone flights in controlled airspace have LAANC authorization, according to new research from drone service provider Aloft. This number is likely so low because DJI, the largest drone maker in the world, quit the FAA program because of concerns about data security and rising political tensions with China.
The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program was established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to provide civilian drone operators access to a streamlined method for flying in regulated airspace and close to 750 airports by entering drone flight details into a mobile app and receiving a near real-time response.
LAANC replaces an inefficient, out-of-date system that required manual approval. But to take part in the program, drone owners need to choose a LAANC supplier.
Aloft, which handled more than 84% of the 43,000 Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) requests that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) got in September, says that most drone flights did not ask for LAANC approval from the aviation authority.
Even though Aloft, one of the LAANC providers, only looked at Dulles and Harry Reid airports, just 20% to 30% of drones identified nearby had received approval from the FAA to be there, according to the study.
DJI has an estimated market share of more than 70%, which means that most of the drone flights that Aloft looked at were probably done with DJI drones.
Currently, obtaining LAANC authorization requires drone pilots to utilize a separate program, such as the one offered by Aloft, but only if they are willing to take the time and effort to do so.
Why did DJI back out of the LAANC program?
Regulatory conflicts in Washington, D.C. over China policy, according to a former industry executive with reportedly intimate knowledge of the FAA program, were what eventually drove DJI away. The Chinese drone manufacturer backed out on seeking to be recognized as a LAANC supplier in 2019.
Adam Lisberg, a former DJI spokesman, said last month that he could not comment on the company’s decision to withdraw from the LAANC program. He did say, though, that DJI’s drones already had features like geofencing and ADS-B In to warn pilots about possible dangers like airports or other planes in the area.
“Given our size in the market, we can confidently say DJI has done more to keep drones out of harm’s way than any other player in the industry,” he said, according to Politico.
The ability to include LAANC authorizations with their current technology, according to Lisberg, “would be a giant step forward for airspace safety.”
An industry official with knowledge of the program said that while DJI already had its geofencing technology in place when it applied to become an authorized LAANC supplier, the two systems did not function well together.
“The goal was to kind of align the geofencing and the LAANC,” the executive said.
But since some of DJI’s geofencing data travels via China, the FAA’s decision to forbid any LAANC provider from accessing data outside of the U.S. placed the programs at odds.
The drone executive commented that this “was obviously targeted at knocking DJI out of the LAANC program, and resulted in the end of that project. That was all derailed because of security issues; whether you believe it was about security or not, it was just part of the political thing,” he added.
The FAA refused to comment on the allegation, according to the news outlet, noting that its partnerships are evaluated “every year.”
How could the FAA bring up the LAANC compliance rate?
A drone lobbyist claims that DJI’s exit from the LAANC program may not be the main cause of the low compliance rate but rather how the FAA manages drone regulations.
For instance, the lobbyist continued, the FAA does not necessarily refer drone pilots to these third-party service providers to get their LAANC authorizations.
“The FAA has kind of failed to allow the UAS service supplier industry to innovate,” the lobbyist continued, “and FAA has simply failed to articulate they are not letting [service providers] integrate with other systems to enable more community compliance.”
The service providers, which include Aloft, DroneUp, Airspace Link, and others, asked for greater leeway in an Oct. 13 letter that Politico received in order “to identify new and innovative ways to reach” drone pilots and improve the airspace authorization compliance rate.
According to the same letter, the service providers are set to meet with the FAA in December.