Autonomous Flight: Amazing. Useful. Frightening?

We at The Drone Show have been doing more and more autonomous flying. Our original foray into such missions, we used Drone Deploy for agriculture and elevation mapping. It’s a solid bit of software, and was amazing to see the results that even idiots such as us could achieve. We totally understand that we are not surveyors or engineers and that individuals and businesses could not use our results where those credentials are necessary. But… seriously, the output is real and, for the most part, pretty dead-on. There are limitations, of course. We have had more than one map that couldn’t complete because there was too much movement below – wind moving trees or the like. One location, we went out three times, and never actually got a complete mapping.

We then moved on to Litchi and Autonomous/Hangar. This is where, for us, it really got to be fun. With little experience, it is possible to jump right in and create really stunning visuals. It’s also, of course, a bit frightening to think what someone with nefarious intentions could do with a sub-$1000 drone, $30 in software, and too much time on their hands. The news will pick up stories like this and run with them, of course – that is how they pay the bills. However, it is important (we think) to keep in mind that, with every technological advance, there are people who will misuse it. Whether it is steel, guns, cars, planes, genetic engineering, or drones. There will always be a small percentage of knuckleheads who make things a little bit scary for the rest of us.

But, the flip side, is that it gives the rest of us opportunities to create wonderful visuals, help with search and rescue, or maintain our businesses more simply and elegantly.

Advancement in technology has never not been messy. That is not likely to change in the future. What we are seeing today, though, was inconceivable by most people just a couple generations ago. It is exciting. It is useful. And, yes, it can also a bit frightening at times. However, it’s our belief that, like most of the advancements we’ve seen, that the good will outweigh the bad. Hopefully, we are correct in our belief.

Checking walls for Vulcan Materials using autonomous mission programmed in Litchi:

FAA Waiver Process: What to expect?

We started our drone business without much understanding of existing regulations. We figured out that we need to be licensed to fly, and we should get insurance. Learned to use the camera, and with each new request, figured out more of the technical side of the options within the software we were using. And, with each crash, figured out the limits of the hardware, as well as our attention spans.

However, when we received an “enhanced warning” we had no idea what it meant. We also had no idea that it would take weeks to actually figure out what it truly meant.

We began our business when you were required to alert the tower at the airport of where and when you will be flying, and ask for permission to fly the mission. However, it was a very short period of time until that changed and authorization or a waiver from the FAA became the bar to overcome for missions within the five-mile radius – this is still not communicated clearly within DJI Go. This was a major issue for us, as more than one of the wealthiest areas in Greensboro are within this area. This meant that we could not legally serve our real estate customers when a request came in. We even created a map, so our customers were able to check whether an address fell within that area, before they made the request:

To make matters worse, though you could look up the approved waivers, you couldn’t actually see the waiver request itself. So, we did not know exactly what information the waiver should include to be approved. Calling the PTI tower and local FAA office made things even murkier, as we received different information from both contacts – the tower manager was correct in telling us that a waiver was required, the FAA rep said we could just alert the tower.

We even reached out to two legal experts and received differing information from each of them.

After two weeks of searching, we did come across this page:

And, this information cleared everything up:
How do I request permission from Air Traffic Control to operate in Class B, C, D, or E airspace? Is there a way to request permission electronically?
You can request airspace authorization through an online web portal available at
Can I contact my local air traffic control tower or facility directly to request airspace permission?
No. All airspace permission requests must be made through the online portal.

We now knew exactly what we needed, but did not know exactly what to submit to get what we needed. We ended up filling out the waiver form, and providing all the detail the form asked for. With regard to things like altitude limits, safety plans, etc., we just said that we would be willing to work within whatever the FAA considered safe and acceptable, and if they wanted us to do anything in particular – fly during certain hours, contact the tower, etc. – we would be happy to meet those requirements.

Then, we waited.

And, waited.

Five weeks went by. We were not even sure if we had officially submitted the form properly, as there is not email confirmation when you submit. We began the arduous process of trying to find someone to help.

After many emails and phone calls, we were able to track down someone who could not only confirm that the request had been submitted, but who was also reviewing the form.

After a total of about six weeks, we were given permission to fly within about half the area that was previously off limits. We must remain under 200 feet within that space, and need to check before getting in the air that the airport has not advised against flying on that day or during that time (something that drone operators should be doing anyway).

We are happy to work within those restraints, as it does not (at this time) affect our business adversely. Since we received our waiver about a week ago, we have already flown four paying shoots within the approved airspace. However, at some point, a request will come in that we will not be able to fulfill, and we will have to start down this path all over again. Our hope is, by that time, that the process is a bit more sane and streamlined, and we will be able to get approval more quickly.

I believe that this is more simply resolved via a set of regulations regarding higher risk areas, and software that can work within those regulations automatically. Airports could easily provide the FAA with areas that are too risky to fly, and areas that require altitude limitations. Drone software developers could then implement these limitations into the software. If you are a business/licensed flyer, you could have more leeway than hobbyists, and this could be achieved by registering with the FAA after you pass your exam, and allowing software companies to confirm license numbers.

This would not be perfect, of course. These are human endeavors, and nothing is perfect where humans are involved. However, I think that it would be much more logical and a greatly simplified process of the current murkiness that exists today. There will be some people who find ways around software, and some people who will use the drones inappropriately. But, that will always be the case, and the regulations today don’t protect any more than what I would recommend as the solution – in fact, they are less protective, in my opinion.

Presently, a hobbyist flyer can still just alert the tower that they are flying within an authorization zone. Get approval, and then fly freely. Businesses, such as ours, are forced to go through a less-than-transparent process, and even after we do, still must operate under more strict rules than the hobbyist.

We do trust, though, that there are saner regulations ahead, and we fully understand that the job of the FAA and ATCs all over the country is not an easy one. We also know that making sure that planes carrying people can take off and land safely ALWAYS takes precedence over drones flying the friendly skies. But, it also doesn’t have to be either/or. Software and GPS have come a very long way over the last twenty years. Both can be leveraged to make the skies safer, regulations more sane and friendly, and simplify the jobs of the folks at the FAA and in control towers all across the country.

If you have any questions about this process, or regulations in general, please do not hesitate to contact us using the information on this site. We would be happy to share what we have learned with other operators, or anyone involved in this current process.