FAA Releases Beta App to Help Drone Pilots Map Out Safe Flights

The app will be used by 1,000 beta testers to ID restricted flight areas to help make the skies safer when drones and model planes are being used.

FAA, drones, Amazon, package delivery, model aircraft, drone regulations, drone deliveries, B4UFLY app

Making the skies safer for commercial and private aircraft is the goal of a new beta B4UFLY mobile app from the FAA that offers to help drone pilots ensure safe flight paths for their unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

B4UFLY is a free app that is being offered by the Federal Aviation Administration for beta testing by up to 1,000 UAS users, including drone pilots and model aircraft hobbyists, to provide up-to-date information on hazards and restrictions in the area when they fly their drones or model planes.

The first beta version of the app is only for Apple iOS users, and the testing is expected to run for several months, after which the FAA plans to make a final version of B4UFLY available for the general public. A version of B4UFLY for Android is slated for release in the future.

The B4UFLY app was released by the agency on Aug. 28 after being announced last May. The FAA created the app because many drone pilots "have little or no aviation experience, and some of them are flying where they could endanger manned aircraft," according to the agency.

To help improve that situation, the app provides a clear "status" indicator that immediately informs operators about their current or planned location, information on the parameters that provide that status indicator and a planner mode for future flights in different locations. The app also includes informative, interactive maps with filtering options and links to other FAA UAS resources and regulatory information, according to the agency.

The app uses the location services feature of a user's smartphone to determine restrictions or requirements in effect where they want to fly, according to the agency. To receive a clear status icon for a safe flight, the user's flight plan for their drone or model aircraft reviews the surrounding airspace, its proximity to airports, temporary flight restrictions, current law, and other FAA guidance and procedures.

Federal regulations and rules for drones and drone flights are still in the works. In June, an FAA spokesman said the agency is working to have drone regulations in place by mid-2016. The regulations will govern drone flights and keep them safely away from commercial and private aircraft traffic as well as pedestrians and other hazards on the ground.

A wide range of businesses, from e-retailer Amazon to agricultural businesses, photographers, energy production companies, news operations and others have been clamoring for the ability to use drones for several years, but have been prevented from doing so until the FAA implements regulations to ensure their safe operation. The companies have been arguing that delays in implementing drone rules in the United States have kept businesses from benefiting from cost savings and new revenue from their use.

Today, model aircraft operators who fly within 5 miles of an airport are required by law to notify the airport and the air traffic control tower—if there is one at the airport—prior to operating, according to the FAA. The agency is working to include an electronic notification process for that requirement in a future version of B4UFLY. During the beta test, the FAA will collect user feedback and operational data and use it to develop this electronic notification process.

The FAA already operates a "Know Before You Fly" educational campaign that provides prospective UAS pilots with the information and guidance they need to fly safely and responsibly.

In July, Amazon proposed the use of specific sections of U.S. airspace for drone flights so that it could push forward with its plans to provide package delivery flights across the United States, eWEEK reported at the time. Amazon's idea is to designate airspace below 200 feet for drones that do surveying or inspections or take videos, while reserving airspace between 200 to 400 feet for delivery drones that are making their way over communities. Such a system would then connect drones as they are operating to an online network that would manage their flights in real time to keep them from harm's way. The airspace between 200 and 400 feet would allow drones to be flown autonomously, while being equipped with sophisticated sense-and-avoid technologies.

Amazon has been looking at drone deliveries as a way of offering faster service to customers while also saving money, compared with the more costly human-based delivery systems.