FAA has expanded the number of air traffic control (ATC) facilities covered by its Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), an automated system that allows commercial drone operators to request and obtain authorization to fly in the vicinity of airports.

The agency added 109 contract towers operated by private companies to the LAANC system, bringing the number of participating ATC facilities to 400 towers, covering nearly 600 airports, FAA said May 23.

Through the LAANC process, commercial operators request authorization to fly drones in controlled airspace using mobile applications offered by FAA-designated unmanned aircraft system (UAS) service suppliers, of which there are 14 listed on the agency’s website. The apps match the operators’ flight plans with airspace grids on FAA UAS facility maps that depict preapproved areas and altitudes where a drone can safely fly—then convey either authorization or denial to the operator.

FAA has made LAANC available to remote pilots operating under its Part 107 regulation for commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 lbs.

Under regulatory changes announced earlier in May, the agency now also requires that drone hobbyists obtain authorization before flying aircraft in controlled airspace near airports. Previously, hobbyists were only required to notify an airport operator or ATC tower before flying within five miles of an airport.

While ATC facilities will no longer consider individual requests to fly drones recreationally in controlled airspace, FAA says, use of the LAANC system is not immediately available to drone hobbyists. Instead, the agency has authorized hobbyists to have access to nearly 200 “fixed sites” in controlled airspace near airports associated with model aircraft clubs.

In a May 17 conference call with reporters, FAA Air Traffic Organization COO Teri Bristol said the agency is committed to implementing LAANC for drone hobbyists “in the next weeks and months.”

The regulatory changes affecting drone hobbyists were specified by Congress in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. They replace a provision of 2012 reauthorization legislation known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, which prohibited FAA from regulating recreational drones.

Another new provision of the 2018 legislation requires drone hobbyists to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test, something commercial operators must do under Part 107. The agency is in the process of developing an online test specific to hobbyists.

The changes “bring recreational flyers to the same [regulatory] model as commercial flyers,” with an equivalent level of safety, and set the stage for making remote identification of drones from the ground effective, said Jay Merkle, executive director of FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office.

The agency’s notice of proposed rulemaking for drone remote ID technology requirements, originally expected by late July, now is scheduled for release in September.

Bill Carey, bill.carey@aviationweek.com