Drone and Aviation technology has massively progressed throughout the past decade. UAVs that can autonomously assist manned fighter jets are now in the making. However, drones and aircraft pilots alike, make use of their vast knowledge of the airspace for travel. This data plays a major role in how, when and where to fly an aircraft. It determines the safe areas, controlled areas, and restricted ones. Understanding airspace classes and regulations help in an overall safe flight of UAVs and aircraft.

What is Airspace?

Airspace refers to the portion of the atmosphere controlled by a country above its territory. This basically means that any three-dimensional space above a country’s territory is called their airspace. However, this does not mean all of the airspaces are accessible to its residents at all times. Globally there exist several controlled, uncontrolled, and restricted zones in airspace depending on the country. Some countries have a permanent no-fly zone on specific locations. For example, in India, the Taj Mahal, Parliament, Prime Minister’s residence, etc. are considered no-fly zones. Also, airspace divisions for UAVs versus manned aircraft can be different too.

Categories of Airspace

Generally, the airspace around the globe is broken down into Flight Information Region (FIR). FIRs are specific regions of airspace in which a flight information service or an alerting service are provided. Control towers utilize FIRs to track aircraft in that particular region. To understand the global airspace better, we can break it into three simple distinctions:

1. Classes of Airspace:

The world’s navigable airspace is divided into 3D segments. Each segment is assigned to a particular class. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has specified certain airspace classes that most countries adhere to. The ICAO specified classes include- Class A, B, C, D, E, F & G. Some countries do not use all of these classes but alter specific classes to their requirements. Also, some individual nations may also designate a region as Special Use Airspace (SUA) due to national security reasons.

Airspace
Understanding Airspace: The different classes of airspace as stated by the FAA.

2.Special Use Airspace (SUA)

This is the airspace, where activities are confined due to their nature or aircraft are given only limited permission to operate in these areas. These special areas separate hazardous or general activities from specific ones. Any kind of military operations or temporary operations are flown in this airspace. SUA is essential to maintain the safety of airspace by restricting sensitive areas thus keeping up with national welfare requirements.

Airspace Aeronautical chart
An aeronautical chart highlighting an SUA

3. Airport Locations

Airport locations are some of the most restrictive areas in any country’s airspace. Every helipad or airport is strictly monitored. With hundreds and thousands of passenger and cargo flights maneuvering in these premises, ground station controllers strictly monitor the air activity using technologies like RADAR and FIRs. The airspace above an airport falls under Class C and Class E airspace. Drones or any UAV is not allowed at least 5 Km away from an airport.

Aeronautical Charts

Aeronautical charts are essentially the navigation maps followed by aircraft. Ships make use of nautical charts and drivers use roadmaps to traverse the land. Similarly, aeronautical charts provide information about the safe altitude, best route, boundaries, alternate landing areas, etc. Unlike land and water-based maps, that provide information only about their respective domains, aeronautical charts give aerial information about both land and the sea. There are charts for all landmasses on Earth and also oceanic-charts for long-distance travel.

Airspace VFR Chart
A VFR chart of the island of Cayo Largo Del Sur

Aeronautical charts can be a little complicated to decipher but once grasped, they can make understanding airspace fairly simple. They contain tons of acronyms and symbols which most pilots are used to reading on a daily basis. The symbols and visual information on a chart convey data like the instrument readings, visual readings and the different rules of aviation. There are three types of aeronautical charts but the most commonly used one is the VFR or Sectional Chart. Aerial charts tell a great deal about the topography of the area, the class of airspace, additional rules, etc. The use of aeronautical charts is crucial to the safety of the manned/unmanned aircraft. Pilots are always required to have a visual. If fog or the clouds block their line of sight, aeronautical charts are the sole guide map in the air. In the case of large drones, which are unmanned aerial vehicles, they completely rely on such data to traverse the skies.

Learn more about the Airspace for UAVs and the Different Aeronautical Charts in Part 2 of this series.