A three-year-long initiative spearheaded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in collaboration with industry has yielded a blueprint that establishes best operational and safety practices and recommended technologies for flying commercial drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS).
As part of the FAA's 2015-chartered Pathfinder Initiative, the agency partnered with three private companies to accelerate discovery and inform regulation on drones: drone technology provider PrecisionHawk, news agency CNN, and BNSF Railway.
According to PrecisionHawk, which released a report on May 1 providing guidance for industry BVLOS drone flights, the initiative sought to gather actionable data on real drone applications and safety scenarios, and extensive research was focused on developing operational and safety practices, as well as recommendations for technologies that enable BVLOS flight.
Regulations Restrain BVLOS Flights
The company noted that while drones have emerged as a "transformative force for business intelligence and operations," the key to unlocking the full potential of unmanned aerial vehicles are regulations allowing drones to fly BVLOS. "As opposed to Visual Line of Sight, or VLOS flights, which are performed with the drones within the pilot's line of sight, BVLOS flights are performed out of visual range. BVLOS capabilities enable a drone to cover far greater distances significantly improving the economics and feasibility of many commercial operations," the report notes.
Businesses that fly BVLOS can reap a number of efficiency and safety benefits because BVLOS allow drones to collect more data in fewer deployments. "BVLOS flight unlocks the next generation of surveying applications (and not just for drones). By enabling workers to operate drone-based sensors remotely, businesses can collect data from places they never could before. And everyone–workers, businesses, and the customers they serve–benefit from an overall improvement in safety," said Thomas Haun, senior vice president of enterprise solutions at PrecisionHawk.
However, obtaining a BVLOS Part 107 waiver from the FAA isn't easy. Waivable sections of part 107 include sections that govern visual line of sight aircraft operation (107.31); visual observer rules (107.33); operation of multiple small UAS (107.35); daylight operation (107.29); operation over people (107.39); and operation in certain airspace (107.41). To date, only one utility–Xcel Energy–has managed to secure a certificate of BVLOS waiver, and that was owing to uncommon circumstances. (For an in-depth story on Xcel's efforts, see: "On the Horizon: Utility Drone Flights Beyond Visual Line of Sight" in POWERnews.)
"To date, more than twelve hundred BVLOS waiver applications have been submitted to the FAA by commercial drone operators–99% have failed to be approved," PrecisionHawk said. The company noted that its safety research data is publicly available to the commercial drone industry, and that it provides consulting services to help clients build a viable Part 107 waiver case and internal BVLOS operations.
A Set of Much-Needed Best Practices for Drones
In the course of its research–which it published in a technical white paper–PrecisionHawk collected data on drone operations in real-world situations. That entailed deploying drones in the same environments where commercial operations would likely occur, introducing "intruders"–that would approach the drone's area of operations from headings unknown to the drone's pilots–and surveying what drone pilots would need to do to detect the "intruder" while continuing to operate the drone.
"Using this methodology, we conducted more than 600 approaches in the field and combined our observations with those made during in-lab simulations conducted by MITRE [ a non-profit that manages federally funded technology research and development]," the report says. "The effort included 75 drone operators in the field and 70 in the simulated environment."
Among PrecisionHawk's recommendations are that companies considering BVLOS flights undertake a thorough BVLOS operational risk assessment. That assessment should ask:
- What functionality must the assistive technology be capable of to enable safe BVLOS operations in the national airspace system (NAS)?
- How do we expect operators to engage with the assistive technology?
- In what ways can this human-machine system fail?
- How do we mitigate the risk of failure?
Drones must also be equipped with adequate support systems and infrastructure. It found three components were necessary for BVLOS flight operations:
- Detection. "Technology must be able to identify cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft that intrude the drone operator's airspace (well-clear violations from aircraft) and take evasive action. Also, technology should provide status alerts during operation to indicate reduced functionality, such as lag, latency, and failure," it said.
- Safety. "Ensure the pilot is aware of existing airspace classes, temporary flight restrictions, and no-fly zones. Also, conduct pre-flight checks of hardware and execute the appropriate flight operations in the event of an in-flight failure."
- Drone operator training. "Pilots must have sufficient experience in VLOS and receive BVLOS-specific training. A practical performance evaluation (in-field test) is necessary to make sure the training is complete."
A portfolio of assistive technology is also required. This includes:
- Small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) tracking, either hardware- and/or software-based, to transmit live trajectory information to the sUAS.
- A real-time manned aircraft data feed.
- A detect-and-avoid system with a minimum range of three nautical miles in a 360-degree field of regard to detect non-cooperative aircraft
- A display that presents visual and audible alerts to the pilot.
PrecisionHawk on Tuesday also announced it had developed the "industry's first" BVLOS-enabled drone platform for commercial users, which incorporates required assistive technology. "For Pathfinder, we used LATAS: a combined set of geospatial, software, and hardware tools to facilitate safe drone operation," it said. "The platform features specialized display elements, including telemetry and an air traffic map." The company added that using these elements, the pilot could easily observe the relative altitude and horizontal separation of intruding aircraft and other mission-critical measures.
–Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)