For several years, the more expensive aerial drones on the market have been designed with built-in firmware that prevents start-up of the motors if the drone is in an FAA restricted airspace, also known as a no-fly zone (NFZ). These zones are typically found around airports, heliports, prisons, military installations, etc.
Identification of No Fly Zones
The easiest way to determine if your intended flying area is in a No Fly Zone, is to check with one of the drone manufacturers’ web sites. For example, DJI posts their NFZ map online at this link. If you haven’t checked the map and you find your drone acting odd, you might be in a NFZ. Odd behavior means it won’t start up or it won’t fly past an invisible barrier.
If you know your intended flying area is in an NFZ and you need access for a valid reason, there’s a way to get permission. You start with the FAA, which has a new web site portal that allows you to ask for airspace authorization.
Enter the information and the FAA will turn around their response in just a few days. Be prepared to offer a good reason for your request. If you’re Part 107 certified, your drone is registered, and you have a valid tasking from a client, then your approval will likely be straightforward.
The FAA will contact the appropriate authority, such as the airport’s Fixed Base Operator, who may come back with restrictions such as flight times, flight days, max altitude, etc. Or, you may be declined. If all goes well, the FAA will issue you a signed form (PDF) authorizing your flight plan.
Drone Manufacturer Unlocking
Submit that form to your drone manufacturer. For example, if your drone was manufactured by DJI, then go to their “Unlock a Zone” portal at this link. Enter the information and the manufacturer will turn around their response in just a few days.
In my experience, the process has been quite fast, with same-day approval from both the FAA and DJI. Once the drone manufacturer has approved your request, they will provide a method to download a firmware patch to your drone. Activate the patch using your drone’s control software. Your permission will typically include a geoposition and date range.