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FAA’s new drone phone app pinpoints restricted airspace for users

A DJI employee demonstrates flying a drone at

A DJI employee demonstrates flying a drone at CES 2016 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Jan. 7, 2016. The FAA has launched an updated version of its B4UFLY app, which shows users flight restrictions in their area. Credit: Getty Images / Alex Wong

A new smartphone app released last week offers drone pilots a quick answer to the question: “Can I fly here?”

The Federal Aviation Administration publicly launched an updated Apple version of its B4UFLY app on Wednesday, when FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced it at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. An Android version of the app also was released Wednesday for beta testing, Huerta said.

“We expect B4UFLY will help raise public awareness about what it means to operate unmanned aircraft safely,” Huerta said. “It is another important part of our education and awareness efforts to foster a culture of safety and accountability for the [unmanned aircraft system] community.”

When activated, the app accesses users’ location to instantly tell them whether there are flight restrictions in the area, and whether they are within 5 miles of an airport or airfield to reduce the chance of midair collisions. To keep drones at a safe distance from manned airplanes, the FAA says drone users by law must contact nearby airport operators or air traffic control facilities if they plan to fly within 5 miles.

Pilots can also file future flight plans within the app, but the FAA warned that doesn’t count as notification they’re planning to fly near an airport, because that information isn’t monitored on a real-time basis.

The app’s launch comes as the FAA has sought to increase drone operators’ awareness and add safeguards after a huge spike in sightings and near collisions were reported by commercial pilots in 2015. In December, the FAA started mandatory registration for all recreational unmanned aircraft — from quadcopters to model planes — between 0.55 and 55 pounds. Pilots caught without a registration number on their drone after the Feb. 19 deadline can face up to $250,000 in fines and up to three years in jail, the FAA has said.

Huerta said this week that as of Wednesday, 181,000 drone registrations have been filed through the federal online registry since it opened Dec. 21.

While registration is required, the app is totally voluntary. It’s free on the App Store, where critics have said that the app looks nice, but should include the contact information of local airports so drone pilots can call them directly to inform them of their flight plans.

Apart from major airports, the app also captures helipads and landing strips that might be within 5 miles of the user.

“It is important for [unmanned aircraft systems] operators to maintain situational awareness of any air traffic that could potentially impact their operations. Currently, B4UFLY considers all of these airports when determining your flight status,” according to a list of frequently asked app questions on the FAA’s website. “The FAA recognizes that this is a lot of airports, and we are working to see if we can narrow this list. ”

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