Instant Airspace Authorizations, LAANC, and the Streamlined Future: An Interview with Ben Marcus, CEO of AirMap
BY Zacc Dukowitz1 November 2017
AirMap has been making headlines lately with the launch of their app for instant airspace authorizations, so we asked AirMap CEO and Co-Founder Ben Marcus if we could hear more about LAANC, AirMap’s new app for airspace authorizations, and where he sees the industry headed.
AirMap is one of the world’s leading airspace management platforms for drones. Millions of drones, hundreds of drone manufacturers and developers, and hundreds of airspace managers and stakeholders rely on AirMap’s airspace intelligence and services to fly safely and communicate with others in low-altitude airspace.
About Ben Marcus
Ben Marcus is an aviation expert and executive. Prior to AirMap, he co-founded and was CEO of jetAVIVA, the world’s largest light business jet sales company. He started his career as a flight instructor and later became a flight test engineer. He is an FAA-certified Airline Transport Pilot and Flight Instructor with over 4,500 hours of flight experience and ratings in airplanes, helicopters, seaplanes, gliders, and six types of jets.
Ben Marcus, CEO and Co-Founder of AirMap
I hope that today’s regulatory hurdles will be in the rearview mirror well before 2025.
UAV Coach: Please describe what AirMap does in one short sentence.
Ben Marcus: We’re an airspace management platform for drones – which means we help drones and their operators fly safely and efficiently.
UAV Coach: How did you first get involved with the drone industry?
Ben Marcus: I’ve always had a passion for aviation. When I was 7, I built my first remote control aircraft, and I spent the first part of my career in manned aviation, working as a flight test engineer and then co-founding JetAVIVA, an airplane sales company.
In 2013, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. I knew I wanted to take my passion for flight and share it with others. I thought, how can I extend the magic of flight to millions or billions of people in their daily lives? And I became tremendously excited about drones. Drones are already bringing amazing benefits to people and businesses, and we’re only starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible.
When I evaluated the emerging drone ecosystem in its early days, I came to appreciate that the missing element that would help the industry scale was airspace management. AirMap co-founder Greg McNeal and I imagined a platform that could be the connective tissue for the drones, delivering situational awareness and helping drones take flight for use cases from inspections and photography to journalism and delivery.
That’s how AirMap was born.
UAV Coach: What drone(s) do you fly and what camera(s) do you use?
Ben Marcus: Personally, I own a Yuneec Typhoon and a DJI Spark. But one of the best parts of this job is that I get to fly all kinds of drones.
It’s incredible how far drone technology has come in just the few years since we founded AirMap. Today, there are so many more opportunities for first-time pilots to experience flight for themselves.
UAV Coach: Is there anything about the work being done at AirMap that you think is crucial to the future of the drone industry, but many people may not understand or know about?
Ben Marcus: We’re developing technologies for both the next year and the next decade.
AirMap technology will grow and evolve as the drone economy does, serving drones and operators at every altitude and at every degree of automation. Everything we do is part of that, from developing richer data to describe the flying environment, to working with the FAA to automate airspace authorization, to building sophisticated flight planning tools that can consider aircraft performance, terrain, obstacles, winds, and many other elements. The platform is always getting better, and I’m excited to share what we’re working on behind the scenes with the rest of the drone ecosystem.
UAV Coach: Can you tell us more about AirMap’s partnership with the FAA on the Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC)?
Ben Marcus: We’re very excited to share automated authorization with the drone community! With the launch of the LAANC prototype, drone operators can now get digital authorization to fly in just seconds – no need to wait up to 90 days for a waiver. LAANC will change the game for the entire drone ecosystem, and drone businesses everywhere.
Any Part 107 operator can download AirMap’s free iOS or Android apps and get authorization right now at the initial sites participating in the prototype. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), Lincoln Airport (LNK), Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO), and San Jose International Airport (SJC) are all live, as well as the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZMP), which represents 40 additional airports. You can explore these airports on AirMap or view the list on the FAA’s website.
UAV Coach: How does authorization work?
Ben Marcus: You can request authorization with AirMap with just a tap. It’s integrated with the typical flight planning process in the AirMap mobile app. Once you submit, you get a text message confirming your authorization and you’re ready for takeoff.
With automated authorization, you can get approval to fly in controlled airspace in seconds, up to predetermined altitudes. For flights that need approval from air traffic control, you can request manual authorization, even for flights above the predetermined altitudes, and receive confirmation in 30 days or less. In fact, some of our users have reported that manual authorizations are being approved in as little as a minute.
UAV Coach: Is there a cost associated with LAANC authorization?
Ben Marcus: No. AirMap’s app is free, and anyone can download it now to get started with LAANC authorization.
UAV Coach: Does this mean I no longer need to apply for airspace authorization from the FAA?
Ben Marcus: LAANC is a prototype meant to augment, not replace, the FAA’s manual waiver-and-authorization process.
The introduction of LAANC will certainly alleviate the volume of requests for airspace waivers received by the FAA, but for airspace not yet covered by LAANC, commercial operators will still need to submit a waiver application. But good news: If you currently have a waiver to fly in controlled airspace, there is no need to file an additional authorization via LAANC.
UAV Coach: How is LAANC different between the various LAANC providers (to our knowledge, Skyward is the only other one that’s currently live)?
Ben Marcus: With LAANC, operators get to pick the provider that works best for them. At the same time, providers like AirMap can tailor the user experience, and choose which types of authorization to offer, based on the needs of their users.
I hope that the operator community will be very excited about how easy and accessible authorization is on the AirMap platform. Requests for authorization are integrated directly into your flight plan, submitted with just a tap, and approved in seconds. Any Part 107 pilot with the latest AirMap iOS or Android app can get started with authorization now, even if you’re in the field or responding to a time-sensitive customer request.
With AirMap, you can also apply for manual authorization, so there is more flexibility for pilots that want to fly beyond the predetermined altitudes available for automated authorization. The manual option makes even more airspace available for drone flight.
And to make it even easier for you to know exactly where it’s safe to fly, we’ve taken the gridded UAS facility maps, and trimmed them to fit within the controlled airspace in which they apply. We’ve also combined grids in which the maximum safe altitudes are the same. Pilots can quickly and easily tell if authorization is required, eliminating confusion that can occur when the grid overlaps with airspace that isn’t controlled. You can read more about this on the AirMap blog.
UAV Coach: What are the next steps for LAANC?
Ben Marcus: More FAA facilities are expected to offer LAANC authorization in the next few months, with a larger nationwide beta initiative expected in 2018 – so LAANC authorization with AirMap is probably coming soon to an airport near you! We’re looking forward to bringing LAANC authorization to airports across the country, and we hope that we can soon share both automated and manual authorizations with our entire developer community in the near future.
The FAA keeps a list of airports participating in the prototype here, and is updating this webpage as facilities are made available to all of the LAANC providers for authorization. As each new site becomes active on the AirMap platform, we’ll be sharing updates on Twitter and Facebook, so stay tuned – more airports are on the way.
UAV Coach: What are your predictions for the drone industry? Please feel free to answer at length (what you see way down the road, what you see for next year, where you see regulations headed in the U.S. and/or elsewhere, new applications, etc.).
Ben Marcus: We are on the cusp of a complete transformation of our airspace and our economy as drones take flight at scale.
We’re already seeing many enterprises using drones for various remote sensing, industrial inspection, journalism, and public safety tasks, and I expect this sector will continue to grow in 2018 and 2019 as flights above people become more commonplace. In 2019 and 2020, we’ll see more drone deliveries and I hope that most of the airspace will be open to drone operations, even for complex use cases. In 2021 or shortly thereabouts, drones will be flying automated missions beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). At the same time, I think we’ll see the first routine eVTOL operations (flying cars) in the U.S., with scaled operations by 2027.
Even if you think about just one industry, drones will be transformative. Take agriculture, for example. Drones will gather data that will enable us to increase yields, decrease costs, reduce our use of pesticides, and contribute to a greener planet. That kind of impact will scale across our economy, and all over the world.
Worldwide, we’re going to see first movers come up with innovative new ways to open the airspace for drones. Personally, I’m keeping a close eye on LAANC here in the U.S., and also on rapid progress being made with the regulators in Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and a few other forward-leaning countries.
I hope that today’s regulatory hurdles will be in the rearview mirror well before 2025, as drone operators prove that complex drone operations are not only safe, but can also make unprecedented contributions to our economy, our work, and our day-to-day lives.
I’m tremendously optimistic about the future for AirMap and the drone ecosystem. I hope the UAV Coach community is, too.