What is uncontrolled airspace and how do I tell if I’m in it?

This post addresses a question that we get from both sides of our user community – our recreational users on B4UFLY and our enterprise customers on Kittyhawk:

I’m flight planning for operations near my smaller local airport. Kittyhawk and B4UFLY say that I’m “Good to Go”, but I’m still not sure if I can fly near the airport. Can I fly there? Can I use LAANC there?

The reason this question is important is that you need prior authorization to operate a drone – both commercial and recreational drone operators.

The short answer to this question is that yes, you may be able to operate near an airport in this situation if you are in uncontrolled airspace, you follow safety guidelines for operating near an airport, and you launch and land from a legal spot. However, in uncontrolled airspace, LAANC is not necessary, so it will not be available.

Airspace in the United States is divided into multiple classes. Class A, B, C, D, and E airspace are considered “controlled”, while Class G is considered “uncontrolled”. Class A is largely irrelevant for hobbyist or commercial drone operations, as it starts at 18,000 feet. Class B, C, and D airspace surround airports with operational control towers in varying degrees of busy and/or complex airspace. An official FAA explainer on airspace can be found here, and a deep dive into aeronautical charts and airspace can be found here.

For drones, Classes B, C, D, and some types of Class E (Class E-2) require prior authorization because they are considered controlled airspace. The easiest way to do this is via use of LAANC. The DroneZone could also be used to receive authorization, but since it is a longer process, it is recommended to use LAANC where available. A list of LAANC-enabled airports is published by the FAA, with approximately 600 airports participating as of August 2019.

Class E Airspace and LAANC

A big point of confusion comes from the fact that there are multiple types of Class E airspace, only one of which (Class E-2) requires authorization in order to operate there. Part 107.41 makes clear that no person may operate a small UAS “within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport unless that person has prior authorization from ATC.” This somewhat complicated language refers specifically to Class E-2 airspace.

The remaining types of Class E airspace are still considered controlled airspace, but do not require prior authorization in order to operate – so you don’t need a LAANC authorization there. One of the best official explanations of this area of confusion is available through the FAA, who did a webinar on this very topic in June 2019.

Class E airspace and LAANC