The FAA B4UFly program got a major overhaul as of Feb. 1, 2024.
Up until Feb. 1, 2024, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) B4UFly program entailed a desktop and mobile application powered by a private drone company called Aloft. When you used the desktop or mobile app, you could enter your location. From there, it would spit out whether or not it was okay to fly there based on ongoing restrictions (e.g. controlled airspace) as well as short-term restrictions, such as Temporary Flight Restrictions for special events. But Aloft’s relationship with the B4UFly program is largely no more.
But come February 2024, there are four companies providing B4UFLY services, similar to what Aloft offered. Learn more about those four B4UFly approved service providers here.
What does the news mean for you? Now, rather than drone pilots receiving that airspace information on one official app from the FAA, you’ll download one of those four apps. The FAA requires that those app providers stick to strict FAA standards around what information the provide and how they do it. The FAA promises that, within each of the four FAA B4UFly endorsed apps, you’ll be able to get the following, consistent information:
- Information about controlled airspace, special use airspace, critical infrastructure, airports, national parks and military training routes.
- Information about Temporary Flight Restrictions for special events.
- Clear status indicators showing whether it is safe to fly or not (e.g. a visual clearly showing that flying around Washington, D.C. is prohibited).
- Informative, interactive maps with filtering options.
- The ability to check whether it is safe to fly in different locations by searching for a location or moving the location pin.
- Links to other FAA drone resources.
There are also a few more stipulations from the FAA, including that all B4UFly app providers must provide free access to B4UFly services. Though, they can sell other products and services within the same app. Additionally, app users must not be required to login or to make an account in order to access flight information.
Beyond that, the app’s interface and tools are largely up to each of the individual providers.
What happened to Aloft?
Aloft began working closely with the FAA to power its B4UFly app as of 2019. It was largely a welcome partnership. That’s namely because Aloft’s fancy San Francisco startup energy gave what had been a previously clunky app a much-needed overhaul. Before Aloft swooped in, the app had a painful 1.5/5 on the Apple app store. Aloft quickly raised it to the 4-star review tier.
But as of tomorrow, the Aloft’s work powering the FAA B4UFly app is no more. While the FAA B4UFly app is still available for download and in good, working condition as of today, you might not want to download it. That’s because Aloft will no longer be making any new app updates. On the other hand, these four, newly-FAA approved B4UFly providers will be accountable for making updates.
As far as what’s next for Aloft, they’re hardly shrinking. In fact, Aloft plans on growing bigger and better. That’s largely thanks to a fresh partnership with Pilot Institute to power a new app called Air Aware. The Air Aware app is set to be more robust than the app that Aloft was powering for the FAA. It will even offer real-time insights before, during, and after drone operations.
Aloft continues to be an FAA approved LAANC UAS service provider. Additionally, Aloft will be releasing an Air Aware update that includes all “B4UFLY” required data sets this week.
Are the new FAA B4UFly changes good or bad?
Are the new FAA B4UFly changes good or bad? It depends who you ask.
In some ways, this democratizes the process of how companies can provide B4UFly services. Before, Aloft had the sole power to offer official B4UFly services. In a way, that crowded out other companies who might’ve wanted to provide FAA-endorsed B4UFly services.
Being an FAA-approved B4UFly service provider can arguably give new companies a little more credibility (and thus room to grow) in the drone space. Yet in the old system, new companies wanting to participate simply couldn’t.
But on the other hand, having multiple companies could be confusing for drone pilots. Up until now, a drone pilot could ensure their flight was okay to takeoff. That’s because they were using information on the official FAA app. While these four apps will have the FAA’s endorsement, it might be less transparent to a new drone pilot. Someone browsing through potentially hundreds of apps in an app store will now have to figure out which ones are officially vetted.
Even still though, some experts argue that having a small handful of companies (in this case four) might even be the worst of both worlds, as there’s still a higher barrier to entry to get involved, without one officially endorsed player.
Among those with that viewpoint is Jon Hegranes, CEO of Aloft (the company that has powered B4UFly until now.
“As our 5-year unpaid contract (including two extensions) came to expiration, Aloft was a proponent of expanding the program,” he said. “The shortfall of the new solution is that it is a small subset of all USS’s (UAS Service Suppliers). A superset of new communities would have been a far more impactful approach.”
In short, his proposal would allow hundreds of players to be able to run B4UFly apps. “What if the AMA, FPVFC, or even Drone Girl had their own “B4UFLY” apps? That is the way to expand awareness and start to solve the recreational compliance challenges.”
And then there’s the financial aspect. The FAA is not providing funding to B4UFLY companies. But apps still have costs (like engineer salaries, marketing costs and web hosting fees).
That means the four companies powering the new B4UFly services come February will have to receive funding on their own. That might come from selling other services to their users, or relying on investor funding. Unfortunately for the latter scenario, investor funding is slowing down — making it harder for startups to get seed funding (or for more established companies to take on more funding rounds).
But it does mean something quite clear. The FAA isn’t paying these companies directly for their work in building these tools.
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