Commercial drone operators around the country continue to test applications of unmanned aerial vehicles as part of the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program aimed at coming up with a regulatory framework for unmanned flights.
For example, later today in Memphis, Tenn., the city’s fire and police departments will conduct drone flight tests at the Liberty Bowl Stadium as part of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP). Memphis is one of the 10 sites across the U.S. where state, local, and tribal governments team up with private entities to work on UAS integration and help the FAA and U.S. Department of Transportation to craft new rules around unmanned aircraft.
The Liberty Bowl tests will include programmed and manual flying around the fence perimeter to support security inspections. In addition to the Memphis Fire Department and Memphis Police Department, partners of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority project include Agricenter International, FedEx, the University of Memphis, the Tennessee Department of Transportation Division of Aeronautics, Intel, Flirtey, 901Drones, ForeverReady Productions, and GE subsidiaries AiRXOS and Avitas.
Another initiative driving the growth of testing of commercial drones is the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), which provides access to controlled airspace near airports (within a five-mile radius) through near real-time processing of airspace authorizations below approved altitudes in controlled airspace. The beta test of LAANC began on April 30, 2018 in six waves, and the last region deployed on Sept. 13, 2018.
AiRXOS is one of 14 companies currently approved by the FAA to provide LAANC services, which involves automating the application and approval process for airspace authorizations (see sidebar below). Commercial drone pilots wishing to conduct operations near an airport can now apply through the LAANC service partners and receive authorization in “near-real time”, the FAA said. LAANC is now available for commercial drone operations at 288 FAA air traffic facilities and more than 475 airports.
Boston-based AiRXOS was formed less than two years ago as a joint venture between GE Ventures and GE Aviation, and provides hardware, software and services for commercial drone operators and drone manufacturers. Robotics Business Review recently spoke with AiRXOS CEO Ken Stewart about the LAANC approval and its work with other IPP partners across the U.S.:
Q: Tell us about AiRXOS and its goals for commercial drone operations.
Stewart: We focus on three areas – hardware, software, and services – these are targeted to address the inherent complexities of integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. When you hear companies talk about package delivery, you can’t just put a drone up in the sky and fly it somewhere and have it deliver a package without having some sort of infrastructure or understanding of how the national airspace works. Many of these operations are restricted today, which means you can’t fly at night, can’t fly over people, can’t fly beyond visual line of sight, for example.
Our goal is how can we take people from where they’re operating today – these very simple drone operations — to expand them beyond the FAA Part 107 regulations. For example, last week we helped an inspection company with an exemption that provided them the ability to fly a drone beyond visual line of sight, and a payload of over 55 pounds, to inspect oil wells. Instead of inspecting two oil wells a day with manual labor, you can now do up to 70 or 80 a day. So that really helps scale the business through our waiver an exemption service.
On the hardware side, we’re taking aviation-grade capabilities from GE Aviation, and putting it into a 2.5-lb. box that can be used on an advanced drone. This allows for high-end edge computing to be able to perform various functions and inspections under bridges, GPS-constrained environments, or around an oil refinery, for example. This hardware product is for drone manufacturers to provide drones for this emerging market of advanced operations.
Q: So you don’t make the drones yourself, you just provide additional hardware for them?
Stewart: Correct. We don’t make the drones, we just make the drones better.
Q: How is AiRXOS involved in the new LAANC program?
Stewart: The LAANC opportunity is the first building block in commercially delivering the ability to get digital authorization to act on behalf of the FAA to enforce their rules around airports. So LAANC gives you a five mile radius, and a static altitude that you can fly at within that radius.
It’s important to start with airports, because that’s where all the infrastructure is. You have radar, aircraft, and towers. The FAA is operating there, and they understand the infrastructure, the flight paths, and can dictate what the altitude for a drone should be.
Why is this important? If you think about cities where these airports are located, there is a lot of critical infrastructure within those five miles. Logan Airport in Boston, for example, has bridges, tunnels, and buildings that need to be inspected – now you can use drones for those. The ability to operate in an area where you have all that surveillance capability is really that first step.
For commercial drone pilots, this is a huge leap for the FAA. Submitting requests for a flight, waiver or exemption usually takes months, now it’s down to minutes, and you can schedule this up to 90 days in advance.
Q: With the LAANC program up and running, do you expect more drone operations to occur around airports?
Stewart: Oh, for sure. You can imagine there’s pent up demand to inspect cellular towers, buildings, and other assets. We think it will help drive our waiver exemption service, because people will want to start scaling their businesses. Just because you have LAANC, this still doesn’t allow you to fly over people. We think this is the first step to start saying this is how we’re going to manage the airspace, but waivers and exemptions are still required.
We’re also working with companies to get the waivers that enable certain pilots that meet the criteria to have one pilot fly with multiple drones. Think about how this scales for agriculture or cellular tower inspection, it helps scale that business. If you think the leap from manual inspection to drone inspections is a good leap, think about doing it from manual inspections to multiple-drone inspections.
Q: AiRXOS is also part of the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program – what can you tell us about the three projects you’re working on with the city of San Diego, city of Memphis, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Stewart: With Memphis, one of the prime constituents is FedEx, so we’re working with them and others. We are using drones to look for foreign debris on runways, but are also looking at inspecting aircraft while they’re in the airport, for example, a drone flying with sensors that can inspect an aircraft’s fuselage or engine.
There are also commercial operations for surveillance of the perimeter of the airport, and LAANC is critical for that, since we still need to get waivers to do these advanced operations. Without LAANC we couldn’t even offer simple drone operations at an airport.
For the Choctaw Nation, it’s more about agriculture. Oklahoma has a very large agricultural business, so some of the commercial operations they are doing are things like feral pig trapping, bait trap monitoring, and figuring out how much yield they can get on crops. At the same time, we’re also testing things like weather data, surveillance data for radar – all of these things are being tested simultaneously.
In San Diego, it’s about public safety and trade – how can we expedite trade across the border, and how can we support public safety for the fire department and other organizations.
Q: How long do you expect these IPP initiatives to last? Is there a deadline, or is it open-ended?
Stewart: They’re essentially three-year programs, but sometimes it feels open-ended. But we’ve already done quite a bit with them. The first tests were the baby steps, with things that required waivers and exemptions – very easy flights. Now that we’re starting to close out the year, we’re going out and doing some advanced operations in some of the locations.
Q: Will this include more beyond visual line of sight operations?
Stewart: It will include beyond visual line of sight, but also one-to-many, night operations, all of the advanced operations that you can think of. We’re going to start building up to those, and as we do them, we can capture all this data with the FAA to really start helping set the criteria so we can say this is the right aircraft for this operation, this is the right environment, the right type of radar, the right kind of communications, and the right type of pilots. All those things will let us start understanding what it’s going to take to do this.
Q: With the IPP and LAANC approvals, and the recent passage of the FAA reauthorization bill, it feels like the government is loosening regulations around commercial drone activities. What kind of effects will this have on the industry?
Stewart: We think the reauthorization is really enabling the industry. One of the challenges we had prior to the reauthorization bill is Remote ID – the FAA did not have the authority to apply Remote ID to everything flying in the airspace – it excluded hobbyists and super-drones. That’s a challenge because there are a million drones out there flying, but only 150,000 of them are commercial. Some of these drones, as we all read about, are doing things they shouldn’t be doing, so now the reauthorization gives the FAA the ability to ensure that all of these components are at a certain level.
Drones can be used for good or bad, so you want to be able to identify the ones that we call “clueless,
Q: Where do you see the most growth happening in the next two to three years?
Stewart: Once people start understanding how they can use drones for their businesses – whether it’s oil well inspections, going in hazardous environments, keeping people out of harm’s way – you’re going to see commercial drone operations take off. Somewhere in the 2020-2021 timeframe – once that starts ramping up, then you’ll see the curve really take off.
When I look at the drone market landscape and I look at the volume of companies – when I look back on 2016 and then look at 2018, it’s almost three times the number of companies that have entered the space. I was shocked that there were 14 LAANC providers – who’d have thought there’d be that many? And those are just those that passed. I’m sure there were some that didn’t make the cut.