Hardly a day passes that we don’t receive a newsfeed about drones spotted in someone’s airspace. These events range from the infamous White House drone crash last year to unmanned aerial vehicles interfering with California firefighters and ongoing drone sightings by commercial pilots in restricted air space. The Federal Aviation Administration will implement regulations to control commercial UAV flights, but it's recreational operators who actually pose the greatest risk.
Radiant Insights forecasts the consumer drone market to rise from $609 million in 2014 to $4.8 billion by 2020. The dominant industry leader, DJI, is expected to double 2014 revenue and top out at almost $1 billion for 2015. By some estimates more than 200,000 sUAVs have been sold in the U.S. over the last several years. Bottom line: more recreational drones, more problems.
A number of organizations are addressing the situation by creating no fly maps for recreational drone users. In this article, we'll take a look at maps and apps that are currently available — but remember that the list and feature descriptions are necessarily incomplete because many of these services are in beta versions, and new ones are coming online each month.
Mapbox, a Washington, D.C.-based company, is a large provider of custom maps for the likes of Pinterest, Evernote, National Geographic, Roadtrippers and GitHub. One of their latest projects is a no fly map called “Don’t Fly Drones Here”. Data on this interactive map include major airports, U.S. military bases, U.S. national parks and temporary flight restrictions. Their open source platform is being used by some third-party developers to render other no fly maps.
AirMap is a Los Angeles-based startup that has gained popularity with both users and drone manufactures. Using both Mapbox and OpenStreetMap, AirMap's data are listed under the following four categories:
- Recreational (can include private airports)
- Class B to Class E
- Temporary flight restrictions,
- Prohibited special use airspace
- Restricted special use airspace
- National parks
- NOAA marine protection areas special
- Private properties
- Power plants
The map can be panned and zoomed, and rendered as a street or satellite map. Each data layer can be turned on or off separately.
RCFlyMaps uses both Mapbox and OpenStreetMap to create their no fly map. Their free iPhone app is always connected to the cloud, so users should have access to the latest data without the need to update their app. RCFlyMaps currently renders all airports within a 3 miles radius, some military bases, national parks and Academy of Model Aeronautics fields. Users have the ability to upload and favorite their own data and classify it as a Restricted, Not Recommended, User Recommended, or Approved flying site.
As firmware rather than an independent mapping solution, the no fly map can limit flights around any of the restrictive locations. Depending on distance and the type of airport, pilots will either get a warning, be prevented from taking off or be forced to land if they enter a restricted area. The screens below illustrate the restricted areas around large and small airports and the warning a drone user would see when nearing a restricted area.
3D Robotics is the largest manufacture of prosumer drones in the U.S. They access and use Mapbox’s Don’t Fly Drones Here map in conjunction with their Droneshare solution.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
On a regional level, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has put together a Google map of all airports around the Atlanta area.
Drone Zones (UK)
Drone Zones is a UK iPhone app developed by the University of Newcastle that enables users to upload their locations. Data can range from safe fly locations to interesting scenery.
NoFlyDrones is a free UK Android app available on Google Play. Like some of the other no fly maps, it uses Mapbox and OpenStreetMap. There are five different datasets: Danger Areas, like military airspace, and High Intensity Radio Transmission Areas are rendered in red; Prohibited Areas are purple; Controlled Airspace, Aerodromes and Airports are blue; Restricted Areas, like prisons and nuclear facilities, are brown; and Military Aerodrome Traffic Zones are yellow.
No Fly Zone
No Fly Zone is a free service that enables individuals to place a no fly zone above their homes. The database is then made available to drone manufactures.
UAV Zones is an iPhone and iPad app that renders airports in red. Your location is green.
FlyNoFly Map is an unreleased prototype application created by one of our own Directions Magazine experts, that renders point and heat maps of restricted areas. Data include U.S. airports, military bases, federal prisons, national parks, stadiums, water treatment plants, state parks and courthouses.
During the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's conference in May, the FAA announced they had developed an iPhone app called “B4UFly”. The beta version is currently being tested by 1000 volunteers and, if all goes well, it should be released as a free app in Apple’s App Store this fall.
In an FAA press release, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta was quoted as saying that the FAA wants to make sure hobbyists and modelers know where it is and isn’t okay to fly. “While there are other apps that provide model aircraft enthusiasts with various types of data, we believe B4UFLY has the most user-friendly interface and the most up-to-date information,”he stated in the press release.
The app renders a clear fly status if there are no restrictions around your current location, provides information that creates the status parameters, makes available a Planner Mode that can be used for future flights at different locations, renders interactive maps, and supplies airport contact information and other FAA UAV links.
According to a May 6,2015 article in Popular Science, the FAA has spent about $430,000 developing B4UFly. The app is designed to complement FAA’s Know Before You Fly educational campaign for prospective UAV operators.
According to an FAA bulletin released in August this year, pilot reports of unmanned aircraft "increased dramatically over the past year, from a total of 238 sightings in all of 2014, to more than 650 by August 9th of this year." No fly maps are a good start in identifying restricted areas, but considering the escalating problems that recreational pilots seem to be causing, it's doubtful that these efforts alone can adequately mitigate the problem. Simply knowing the regulations won’t stop restricted area flights anymore than knowing the posted highway speed limited stops drivers from speeding.
It’s difficult to imagine that the FAA will continue to tolerate these types of infractions without enacting more restrictive legislation. It’s therefore imperative that the industry takes action before the FAA does. There is no perfect solution and ultimately it may be a combination of technologies that prevent unauthorized sUAV flights. In the meantime, it would seem the easiest solution is to follow DJI’s lead and have drone manufacturers integrate no fly maps into their mission-planning firmware. There will undoubtedly be push back from experienced Radio Control pilots who have been flying safely for years, but other short-term solutions have been hard to find — perhaps our readers can offer additional ideas.
Read more in the next article in this series, "No Fly Apps - What's New?"