Alaska Team Performs BVLOS Drone Flight Without Human Observers

The Skyfront Perimeter UAV taking off from the Alyeska trans-Alaska pipeline right of way near Fox for the first true beyond-visual-line-of-sight commercial flight, approved by the Federal Aviation Administration under the small UAS rule. The UAV flew 3.87 miles along the pipeline corridor. Image credit: UAF Geophysical Institute photographer Sean Tevebaugh

August 02, 2019      

FOX, Alaska – A team of partners in the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (IPP) have conducted a Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone operation without human visual observers, the group said yesterday.

The team, which included officials from Iris Automation, Skyfront, Echodyne, and the Alyeska Pipline Service Company, conducted a safe and successful 3.87-mile mission to inspect the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) infrastructure. The flight was performed on Wednesday, July 31, and received approval from the FAA based on Iris Automation’s computer vision collision avoidance technology, Skyfront’s long-range multirotor Perimeter UAVs, and Echodyne’s ground-based airspace management radar system, the companies said.

Alexander Harmsen Iris Automation Alaska

Alexander Harmsen, Iris Automation

“This marks a huge advancement in the FAA UAS Integration Pilot Program (UASIPP) and the drone industry,” said Iris Automation CEO and Co-founder Alexander Harmsen. “This is the first time detect and avoid technology is approved by an aviation authority as reliable enough to allow for BVLOS drone operations. We’re grateful for the FAA’s continued push to recognize and understand how these technologies will enable the successful and safe integration of UAS into our lives and businesses.”

In general, all FAA-issued Part 107 BVLOS waivers have required some ground-based visual observer to mitigate the risk of non-cooperative aircraft entering the mission area – which can be expensive and non-scalable for the use of drone in some commercial purposes. In yesterday’s test, the companies partnered with the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) at the UAF Geophysical Institute and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

The Skydrone Perimeter UAV was used in the Alaska pipeline inspection operation. Image credit: UAF Geophysical Institute photographer Sean Tevebaugh

“The test mission designed by the team at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is an excellent demonstration of the potential for commercial UAS,” said Echodyne Founder and CEO Eben Frankenberg. “With Iris Automation and Echodyne sensor technologies, routine commercial missions like linear inspection and medical deliveries to remote communities are both practical and safe.”

Iris Automation’s Casia system can detect, track, and classify other aircraft, making intelligent decisions about the threat they may pose to the vehicle, and triggering automated maneuvers to avoid collisions. The cool can work in coordination with ground-based sensors such as Echodyne’s MESA radar technology, which the company said has been used as several FAA UAS test sites. Iris said Casia has been tested globally, with more than 7,000 real-world test flights and mid-air collision scenarios, and more than 40,000 encounters in simulation.

Alaska Iris Automation graphic

The Iris Automation Casia software was able to provide collision avoidance features for the drone flight. Image: Iris Automation

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is one of 10 participants in the FAA’s UAS IPP, which allows state, local and tribal governments to work with drone operators and manufacturers to speed up the safe entry of unmanned vehicles into the nation’s airspace beyond what is currently allowed under FAA Part 107 regulations. In Alaska, proposals have included using drones to deliver medical devices to remote areas, help search and rescue, survey fish and wildlife, and monitor pipelines, roads, and other infrastructure.

“The ability to use UAVs for surveillance in remote areas of the pipeline increases the tools at our disposal to operate TAPS more reliably and safely and better protect Alaska’s environment,” said Tom Barrett, president of Alyeska Pipeline, which operates the Trans-Alaska pipeline system. “This innovative step forward will advance safe performance not just in our industry, but in multiple disciplines and workspaces across the country.”