Commercial drone flights in the U.S. continue to be limited by government regulations that require exceptions for any operations that go beyond the line of sight of a drone pilot, but these regulations haven’t stopped companies from developing applications such as industrial inspection, deliveries, and agriculture monitoring, to name a few.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initially restricted drone use to line of sight after concerns were raised about near-misses with aircraft and helicopters, as well as an explosive growth of new drone vehicles, both recreational and commercial. The Part 107 rule, created in 2016, allows new exemptions for commercial drone flights in industries such as transport/delivery, insurance, construction, and agriculture.
Without the exemptions by Part 107, regulations require that drones fly no higher than 400 feet, no faster than 100 mph, and remain within the pilot’s line of sight. The government is currently testing Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) with several companies to see if any additional regulations (or relaxing of rules) are required.
According to PrecisionHawk Inc., more than 1,200 BVLOS waiver applications have been submitted by commercial drone operators, with 99% failing to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety. Since October 2016, only 20 waivers for BVLOS have been granted (see list below).
A bright future for commercial drones
Even though the commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market is in its infancy, its future is bright, expected to grow as the operating range of drones continues to expand with BVLOS. Commercial drones are expected to grow from a $1.6 billion market in 2016 to $15 billion by 2022. According to IDTechEx, agricultural robots and drones will become a $35 billion industry by 2038.
Furthermore, it’s estimated that drone shipments will reach more than 600,000 by 2022, according to Interact Analysis. Demand for commercial drone flights is expected to come from the U.S. and China, which account for more than half of the revenue by 2022, the company said.
U.S.-based companies accounted for nearly one-third of commercial UAV industry revenues in 2016, and are projected to be the largest market over the next five years. Driving the growth is the anticipation of relaxed FAA regulations, in response to swelling demand for BVLOS in several markets. At the same time, China will increase its share of the global market.
FAA developing workable framework for BVLOS
The industry is working with the FAA to develop a safe and workable BVLOS framework and methodology for testing and eventual implementation into specific markets. To this point, the FAA has published a report entitled “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Detect and Avoid Requirements Necessary for Limited Beyond Visual Line of Sight Operations” as a guide for the industry.
The report offers insights into aspects of BVLOS flights such as the following:
Purpose: Develop a limited approach to detect and avoid (DAA) obstacles – either in the air or on the ground – that could enable BVLOS operations of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) in the U.S., under specific operational limitations.
Background: Develop a Minimum Operational Performance Standard (MOPS) for UAS DAA capabilities. However, this could result in technologies incompatible with smaller drones – those under 55 pounds, relatively low speed or stationary, low-altitude systems. Also, any visual line-of-sight operating limitations wouldn’t be compatible with precision agriculture and geographical mapping applications that require greater access to the national airspace in order to reach its full economic potential.
Projected Benefit of Research: The objective is to expand access for sUAS in limited portions of the NAS and still achieve a level of safety equivalent to manned aircraft operating in a similar manner. This research and associated operating limitations will facilitate safe and efficient use of applications that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) says will make up to 80% of the future commercial UAS market
Research Approach. Development of an operational framework, including operating constraints, a description of the operating environment, and any assumptions that need to be communicated to other stakeholders for sUAS BVLOS operations. Conduct a comparison of ground-based and airborne approaches to sUAS Detect and Avoid and determine whether to develop requirements for both, or only the most feasible approach.
Recent examples of BVLOS flights and testing:
According to this FAA website, approximately 20 waivers have been granted BVLOS waivers as part of Rule 107.31 to the following companies:
|Project Wing||Drone delivery|
|GreenSight Agronomics||Agriculture / water management|
|Xcel Energy||Energy / infrastructure inspection|
|Praxis Aerospace Concepts International||Consulting|
|CyPhy Works||Physical security monitoring|
|SENG LLC, dba Flytcam Motion Pictures||Cinematography|
|Pinnacl X||Infrastructure inspection|
|Untamed Aero Solutions||Land surveying / infrastructure inspection|
|CAPE Productions||Aerial telepresence|
|FLIR Unmanned Aerial Systems||Military / defense|
|PrecisionHawk||Drones, sensors, flight operations, consultant|
|BNSF Railway Company||Railway inspection|
PrecisionHawk offers pathways for BVLOS
PrecisionHawk is a provider of drone technology for companies. The Raleigh, N.C.-based company recently released its Pathfinder Report, which is a blueprint for companies looking to conduct BVLOS operations. PrecisionHawk has been deeply involved in best practices discussions and testing, including meeting with FAA leaders and other government leaders, including President Trump.
PrecisionHawk was one of three companies (CNN and BNSF were the others) 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. The fieldwork was performed in partnership with the FAA and MITRE.
The report outlines a comprehensive safety case and recommended BVLOS standards, and has yielded critical information to the FAA regarding drone operations.
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 participant, 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, BNSF, along with Rockwell Collins, announced successful demonstrations of BVLOS operations with test flights of more than 200 miles.
PrecisionHawk’s report provides best practices for BVLOS safety and serves as an inflection point for commercial drone flights, as it supports the expansion of safe operations.
“The final report determined that there are three necessary components for BVLOS flight operations: detection, safety, and drone operator training,” stated Dr. Allison Ferguson, director airspace research at PrecisionHawk. “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.”
“PrecisionHawk has spent the past three years conducting BVLOS safety research to demonstrate a corporate commitment to research activities that support the data-driven growth of safe unmanned air systems operations,” said Michael Chasen, PrecisionHawk CEO. “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. With the proper assistive technology, training and hardware, BVLOS operations can be conducted safely.”
Under its own BVLOS waiver, PrecisionHawk has also begun working with enterprise clients to integrate BVLOS operations that address applications, such as pipeline inspection, environmental monitoring and more.
“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 Chasen. “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.”
PrecisionHawk has also been selected to participate with the state of North Carolina in a program focused on drone integration, introduced by the Trump administration last year.
The project was chosen by the Department of Transportation (DOT) from 150 applications submitted by 200 businesses, including companies like Alphabet, Apple, FedEx, Boeing, and AT&T.
“We commend the White House for recognizing the significant business potential that drones bring to agriculture, commerce, emergency management, human transportation and other sectors,” said Diana Cooper, senior vice president of policy and strategy at PrecisionHawk.
GreenSight Agronomics monitors golf courses and farmland
GreenSight Agronomics is a Massachusetts-based company that is a leader in turfgrass remote sensing, with a focus on the golf and farming industries. The company was founded in 2015 by former defense contractor executives and engineers, is developing the next-generation agricultural intelligence platform.
Combining autonomy, custom sensors, and machine learning based data analytics technology, GreenSight delivers actionable alerts on soil moisture, pest stress, and nutrient deficiency to land managers. GreenSight said it is the leader in turfgrass remote sensing, providing daily monitoring services at top-5 agrochemical company test sites, golf courses, and farms.
BVLOS drone operations will allow GreenSight to operate its drones remotely, reducing the burden on customers to fly and allowing daily analysis of their property.
Jason VanBuskirk, vice president of sales and marketing at GreenSight, said the company was given permission to operate commercial drone flights over populated areas – golf courses – in addition to operating over unpopulated areas, such as farms.
BVLOS operations lets GreenSight control its drone systems stationed anywhere in the world remotely from its Boston command center.
“GreenSight already provides our golf course and agricultural customers insight into their water and chemical needs allowing them to make better management decisions,” said GreenSight CEO James Peverill. “This waiver is a first step in reducing the overhead of obtaining this information from our drones, letting our customers focus on their properties.”
Beyond the U.S.: Flytrex delivers packages in Iceland
Flytrex is an Israeli company whose first project is a partnership with AHA, Iceland’s largest e-commerce firm. This partnership has developed the world’s first autonomous delivery route in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the first drone delivery system to be deployed in an urban environment.
The company has also recently developed BVLOS capabilities as part its portfolio of capabilities.
“Our flights in Iceland are in-production and use BVLOS”, said Amit Regev, Flytrex’s co-founder and vice president of product.”
He added that the company was starting to test BVLOS deployments in Central America as well. The company was also chosen as part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program.
“Our cloud drone-delivery management system offers safety redundancies in all three system layers: the drone/hardware itself, the airspace it operates in and the communication with the cloud control system,” said Regev. “Together, this gives our system the ability to fly BVLOS safely, and in different settings,” said Regev.
The company has built redundancies into its drone management system in the event failures were to occur with a drone or the underlying communication network. “We’ve taken into consideration a wide range of issues to ensure safe, reliable, and efficient use of drones,” Regev noted.
Some examples include ensuring that engines are shut down if there is a problem and employing a parachute when engines shut down to ensure the safety of those on the ground and the drone. Other safety measures include programming a drone to go back to its origination point coordinates (where the takeoff area would be clear and a drone operator present) in case of communications problems with the drone or the underlying network.
In addition, Flytrex’s precautions for commercial drone flights include segregating drones in operational areas and working with others on developing a Universal Traffic Management system.
More applications for commercial drone flights
Extending the range of drones to go beyond the visual line of sight opens up new ways for commercial drone flights to offer customer service and perform other tasks they couldn’t before. For visionary firms looking to serve their customers in the best, fastest, and the most efficient and effective manner, over extended distances, BVLOS may often make sense.
Promising markets extend beyond package delivery — although that is certainly a primary area of interest for BVLOS drones. Other applications for commercial drone flights are making time-critical deliveries of medicines and other packages for pharmaceutical firms and hospitals, surveillance of crowds, and serving transportation and utility networks.
In addition, BVLOS drone operations can help monitor the condition of land and water on farms, golf courses, and other areas, as well as a wide range of other possibilities.
A coordinated effort between government, academia, and companies is underway to develop rules, regulations, and best practices to ensure that a safe, reliable, efficient, and scalable is developed for widespread BVLOS commercial drone flights.
Some of the earliest use cases are being justified within high-value areas, such as in pharmaceutical and healthcare delivery, security, analysis of natural resources, transportation and utility systems, and other high-potential areas.
From these initial markets, fixed costs should then be reduced with costs for other applications dropping over time, making BVLOS a reality, and opening up new markets for autonomous and semi-autonomous commercial drone flights in the not-too-distant future.
Main image courtesy of Deposit Photos.