Drone Flight Testing Soars Beyond the Horizon

Screen shot of Windhover Labs' flight software for BVLOS operations for unmanned aerial systems.

May 09, 2018      

At least two companies have progressed recently on efforts to extend commercial drone operations beyond visual line of sight, or BVLOS. Currently, organizations that want to perform BVLOS operations need to get a waiver from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, known as Part 107.

Today, Windhover Labs LLC announced a successful test of its integrated flight software stack and ground-control software. The League City, Texas-based company said it hopes to sell its software to OEMs, avionics manufacturers, and commercial customers.

The system “removes barriers to autonomous, beyond line-of-sight drone operations, accelerating the pace of commercial drones to operating safely and reliably within low-altitude airspace,” stated Windhover Labs.

The test flight, which was not a BVLOS operation, involved a licensed pilot who manually controlled a drone through a series of throttle tests, altitude tests, and position tests. The pilot then turned the flight software over to an automated script that executed autonomous flying, said Mathew Benson, co-founder and chief engineer at Windhover Labs.

Even during the autonomous portion of the test, the pilot was able to monitor the unmanned aerial vehicle’s (UAV’s) flight, he said.

Windhover’s open ecosystem flight software is being developed through the Phase II NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. SBIR helps fund research and development of new technologies “that have significant potential for successful commercialization.”

The company’s command, control, communication, and information systems are based on the backbone of NASA’s core Flight System (cFS) framework, as well as the standards “commensurate with FAA certification,” Windhover said.

Mathew Benson Windhover Labs BVLOS

Mathew Benson, Windhover Labs

Benson said the company chose to build its system on the space flight system framework because of its success in space exploration, which obviously operates beyond line of sight.

“Our team has over 30 years of developing human-rated spaceflight software for NASA, NASA subcontractors, and the commercial space,” Benson said. “We decided to apply our experience to the emerging commercial drone market and build our flight stack on proven, safety-critical spaceflight software.”

Providing a blueprint for BVLOS operations

Another company looking to assist companies with BVLOS flights is PrecisionHawk. The company earlier this month released its Pathfinder Report, a blueprint for companies looking to conduct BVLOS operations. PrecisionHawk was one of three companies named in 2015 as members of the FAA’s Pathfinder Program, a collaborative effort that aims to provide recommendations for different aspects of the UAV environment.

PrecisionHawk was tasked with exploring how UAV “flights outside the pilot’s direct vision might allow greater [drone] use for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations.”

Broadcast company CNN was tasked with exploring how drones could safely be used for news gathering in populated areas. The company received the first FAA Part 107 Waiver for Operations over People in October 2017.

The third Pathfinder company, BNSF Railway, is tasked with exploring command-and-control challenges of using UAVs to inspect rail system infrastructure. The company received Part 107 waivers for daylight operation, visual line of sight aircraft operation, visual observer, and operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft in August 2016. In May 2017, the company, along with Rockwell Collins, announced successful demonstrations of BVLOS operations with tests flights of more than 200 miles.

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The PrecisionHawk report, which can be downloaded here, defines standard operating procedures for companies and individuals looking to provide routine, commercial use of UAVs in BVLOS operations. The report gives methodology and results of three years of testing, focusing on developing operational and safety practices, as well as recommendations for technologies that enable BVLOS flight.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based company said it has submitted its report to the American Society for Testing and Materials. PrecisionHawk has also made the research public and “available to any company seeking to obtain their own BVLOS waiver.”

BVLOS flights need detection, safety, and training

In discussing BVLOS flight, PrecisionHawk said that “flying is the easy part.” More challenging was the safety ecosystem around BVLOS, which includes control systems, sensors, and data analytics. The company concludes that three components are needed for successful BVLOS drone flight:

  • Detection: Technology needs to identify aircraft, both cooperative and non-cooperative, that “intrude the drone operator’s airspace (well-clear violations from aircraft), and take evasive action. Flight software should also give alerts during operation to indicate lag, latency, and failure.
  • Safety: “Ensure the pilot is aware of existing airspace classes, temporary flight restrictions, and no-fly zones.” Pilots should also perform pre-flight checks of hardware and be able to execute appropriate flight operations in the event of an in-flight failure.
  • Drone operator training: Pilots must have sufficient experience in visual line of sight (VLOS) flying, as well as receive BVLOS-specific training. “A practical performance evaluation (in-field test) is necessary to make sure the training is complete.
Michael Chasen, PrecisionHawk CEO BVLOS

Michael Chasen, PrecisionHawk CEO

PrecisionHawk recommended that pilots have between 15 and 20 hours of VLOS flight experience logged with the same model of drone before BVLOS flight is attempted.

“An operator must be able to respond to the warnings provided and effectively assess airspace through the alerts and data they receive,” the company said. “In order to properly focus on these alerts and data, the pilot must already be very comfortable flying the drone model. It must be second nature.”

While these guidelines are not regulations required by the FAA, PrecisionHawk said it also provides services to enterprise clients that want to integrate BVLOS operations and receive an FAA waiver.

“Through our work, we understand flight operations and best practices for BVLOS safety, but we don’t want to be the only ones in the sky,” said Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk. “We’re eager to make the capability accessible to the industry at large by working with companies to build a safety case, identify required technology, and navigate the regulatory waters of BVLOS flight so that they may safely operate drones.”

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