PrecisionHawk recently released its FAA Pathfinder Report concerning beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations. The report is the result of three years of research conducted in partnership with the FAA and MITRE, and outlines comprehensive standards for flying drones BVLOS.
According to PrecisionHawk, the report can be used as a blueprint for companies who want to conduct their own BVLOS operations. The findings from the report have been summarized into American Society for Testing and Materials (ATSM) standards, and can be used for companies not just to develop BVLOS operational protocol, but also to work on their own BVLOS waiver applications.
The Pathfinder Report describes how to develop a safety case and choose technology for flying BVLOS. It found three necessary components for BVLOS flight operations: detection, safety, and drone operator training.
[You can download the full report here, or download an abbreviated version here.]
Technology must be integrated to identify cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft, pilots must be aware of existing airspace classes, temporary flight restrictions, and no-fly zones, and pilots must receive BVLOS-specific training to ensure a safety ecosystem around BVLOS drone flight.
– Dr. Allison Ferguson, director airspace research at PrecisionHawk
The FAA’s Pathfinder Program was first started in 2015. The two other areas the program has been investigating in partnership with private companies are flights over people and drone detection.
Implications for the Drone Industry
It’s no secret that BVLOS is the drone industry’s next game changer.
Allowing companies to fly beyond visual line of sight is crucial for drone deliveries, search and rescue missions, precision agriculture, and railroad inspections, not to mention the use it can provide for surveying large construction sites, mining operations, and other big areas.
Lately, it looks like things are picking up some speed when it comes to the FAA allowing companies to conduct BVLOS operations.
Just last week Xcel Energy made the news for being the first utility company to be granted permission by the FAA to fly BVLOS missions to inspect powerlines. After completing inspection work in Colorado, Xcel Energy plans to expand their BVLOS missions to other states where they operate, which could potentially set a precedent for BVLOS flights to be used in other inspection scenarios.
To date, the FAA has only issued 19 BVLOS waivers out of 1,200 applications submitted, making a BVLOS waiver one of the most difficult Part 107 waivers to obtain. The primary problem with the majority of BVLOS waiver applications has to do with being able to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety.
The best practices for safe BVLOS flying shared in PrecisionHawk’s report could go a long way toward helping companies make successful applications. Given that 99% of BVLOS waiver applications are currently rejected, even a small uptick in acceptances would be significant.
We believe that the ability to fly drones BVLOS represents the next big opportunity for commercial drone operators across such industries as energy, agriculture, insurance, construction and government, and with the proper assistive technology, training and hardware, BVLOS operations can be conducted safely.
– Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk
Under its own BVLOS waiver, PrecisionHawk has already begun working with their clients to integrate BVLOS operations into applications like pipeline inspections and environmental monitoring, among others.
Progress on the UTM Front
Another piece of the BVLOS story is the progress NASA and its partners in private industry have been making with the development of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), which are systems to regulate drone traffic in order to avoid collisions between unmanned and manned aerial vehicles, as well as between UAVs.
As UTMs develop, they will help make BVLOS flights more and more possible, since they can help to monitor drone traffic to keep the skies safe.
Part of the development of UTM is the need for drones to communicate with each other and other aircraft across multiple UAS Service Suppliers (USS), using each company’s respective UTM technology.
To this point, AirMap and Project Wing recently announced a successful demonstration of communications between their respective UTM platforms as part of NASA’s ongoing UTM testing.
The testing took place at the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership test site in Virginia. In several flights, AirMap and Project Wing UTM platforms were able to demonstrate communication between UAVs with real-time telemetry and notifications to avoid collisions in a muti-USS airspace environment (that is, in an environment where multiple drones were using multiple UTMs).
The big takeaway here is that progress is being made, and we can expect to see more and more companies getting permission to fly BVLOS. Just looking at the numbers for 2018 is heartening—of the 19 BVLOS waivers the FAA has ever granted, 8 of them were issued in the first four months of 2018.