Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) have been used in aviation since the days of the original teletype. Sending data across wireless was once upon a time a costly process, where only the alphanumeric characters critical to the message were transmitted. That’s how NOTAMs become messages full of abbreviations, half words, and words without vowels.
While NOTAMs serve a specific purpose to manned aviation, unmanned aviation is still trying to determine how to best use the tool. Around 2013, when cost and reliability of consumer grade drones allowed for their proliferation, regulators sought to notify manned aviation of potential aviation hazards. The quickest tool to use was the NOTAM. For example, airplanes and cranes do not generally mix well together, especially in low visibility weather. As a temporary crane will not be illustrated on aeronautical charts, pilots are officially notified of the hazard through the publication of a NOTAM.
NOTAMs serve to notify airmen for nearly all information of a short-notice and temporary nature. Thus, regulators used the NOTAM system to notify manned airmen of a potential unmanned aircraft hazard, much like the use of a NOTAM for a temporary crane. This led to a huge misunderstanding on how NOTAMs could be used in unmanned aviation. Here is a short list of what a NOTAM is not and cannot do:
- It is not a flight plan.
- It does not give the right to operate a drone in controlled airspace or around an aerodrome.
- It may or may not be required for an unmanned flight.
- It does not give an unmanned aircraft right-of-way to a manned aircraft.
NOTAMs can be used to temporarily change airspace classification. (Remember that airspace users do not have the authority to make changes to airspace classifications; it is usually a delegated authority by the Minister of Transportation.)
So what is a NOTAM?
A NOTAM is a notice to airmen. More accurately, The Canadian NOTAM Procedures Manual defines the NOTAM follows:
A NOTAM is a notice containing information concerning the establishment of, condition of or
A NOTAM is a notice distributed by means of telecommunications containing information concerning the establishment, conditions or change in any aeronautical facility, service, procedure or hazard, the timely knowledge of which is essential to personnel concerned with flight operations.
During flight planning for a flight between Montreal and Ottawa, a manned pilot or dispatcher has 20 pages of NOTAMS to filter through! There is a lot of potential for an important NOTAM to be missed. (Though concerning, this subject is outside of the scope of this article.) Therefore, a manned pilot, dispatcher, or flight service specialist may miss a NOTAM of a UAV operating in the vicinity of one of the aerodromes.
Fast forward to 2018, the NOTAM is no longer the best tool to integrate manned and unmanned aviation. The onus is placed on the drone operator – as it always has been – to use the best tool to fit into manned aviation. The most common tools for integrating into manned aviation is the use of aviation radios and coordinations with NavCanada, talking directly to control towers and flight service stations. In the future, we may see tools such as transponders and ADS-B systems helping separate manned and unmanned aviation. Airmarket, through the use of their FLY-SAFE platform, is taking steps towards Universal Traffic Management (UTM), where manned and unmanned aircraft will seamlessly integrate together… because we don’t want our drone-delivered pizza delayed waiting for all those international flights to land.
Does that mean the drone pilots can forget about NOTAMs? Absolutely not! Drone pilots are airmen, and the notices are for us as well.
NOTAMs can often include information very relevant to the safe operation of unmanned aircraft. Although, when scanning aerodrome NOTAMs, the cranes and other temporary obstacles to our flight path may be easy to see from out vantage point on the ground, and thus redundant, what we may not be able to see are temporary airspace closures for various reasons. This is obviously a concern to us as types of airspace affect our operations.
Airspace changes due to forest fires are a very common NOTAM to which unmanned pilots should pay particular attention. Section 5.1 of the Aeronautics Act allows the Minister of Transport to restrict flight in any airspace, for any purpose, by NOTAM. When forest fires or other natural disasters occur, issuance of a NOTAM to restrict the airspace to only air operations supporting the disaster will help ensure the safety of those aircraft. Sadly, it is becoming too common of unmanned aircraft wandering into these restricted airspaces without permission and having all fire fighting flight operations halting. Manned pilots of water bombers have a very difficult job without having to look for errant drones.
Here is an example of a how a NOTAM will look in raw form:
181018 CYEG GRAND CACHE(HEALTH COMPLEX)(HELI)
CGC3 BLASTING ACT RADIUS 5 NM CENTRE 540036N 1191354W
(APRX 8 NM NW AD) SFC TO 2000 FT AGL
1808041400 TIL 1811010200
Translated into English, this means there will be active blasting occurring, which could be a hazard to manned and unmanned aircraft operating within a 5 nautical mile radius centred on coordinates of 54 degrees 00 minutes 36 seconds North, 119 degrees 13 minutes 54 seconds West from the surface to 2000 feet above ground level. These coordinates happen to be 8 nautical miles north west of the Grand Cache Health Complex heliport. The blasting operations will occur between 1400 hours to 0200 hours UTC daily, starting 1400 hours UTC on August 8, 2018 until 0200 hours on November 1, 2018.
The MAP 3.0 section of the Transport Canada Aeronautical Information Manual contains much more information to help decipher NOTAMs.
For operations occurring under SFOCs, checking NOTAMs prior to operations is required. As drone operations will eventually move into operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), information published by NOTAM will be even more critical. If reading the alphabet soup of NOTAMs parsed from the internet or your favourite aviation app is not your thing, call 1-866-WX-BRIEF. The NavCanada specialists who answer your phone call are always more than helpful with providing pre-flight briefing information, which includes finding and deciphering relevant NOTAMs