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  • Charl Jooste

The Beyond Visual Line of Site Era Has Begun

It was not long ago that all drone operations had to be carried out only in line of sight. Initially, this was a restriction of the equipment and technology but as this has evolved and improved, it is currently curtailed by laws and regulations. Things, however, are starting to change. Mostly for the better.

BVLOS or “beyond visual line of sight” is now a safe and realistic reality for many drone operations. Fortunately, the regulating bodies are realizing the capabilities and potential of the technology and are coming to the party by approving the more competent operators and solutions.

This is an exciting move that opens up a world of opportunities for a range of beneficial drone operations.

A good example of this is the beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone flight by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The FAA approved flight was a great success and demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of such operations.

Prior to approval of BVLOS flights, drones had to stay in line of sight with the operator. This obviously creates significant restrictions. Drone technology and safety have improved exponentially in recent years and obstacle avoidance, control, and real-time accurate visuals now make it a viable reality. This creates many opportunities for a range of commercial, humanitarian and other drone applications.

Drone flights BVLOS will allow for commercial deliveries for companies such as Amazon as well as the supply of critical medication and aid for humanitarian deliveries. It will also boost the use of inspection drones which will be of benefit to a wide range of industries.

Another great example of recent BVLOS operations was the recent exercise by the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT). They used onboard detect-and-avoid systems to fly a significant 9-mile journey that studies local power lines in the rural areas of Kansas.

The FAA approved operation was a joint effort between KDOT, the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, Iris Automation and Westar Energy.

KDOT Director of Aviation, Bob Brock said: “The UAS industry has worked over 10 years to demonstrate the most significant commercial benefit of drone operations within the United States.” He added, “We are proud of the joint state, university and industry team that made this landmark decision possible.”

Westar Energy Senior UAS Coordinator Mike Kelly commented: “The ability to fly BVLOS missions without ground-based radar or visual observers is a significant advancement, and Westar Energy views this as an opportunity to play a key role in shaping the future of UAS operations within the utility industry.”

He went on to add: “Being able to operate under this waiver allows the Kansas IPP team the ability to research and develop truly scalable BVLOS UAS operations for the automated inspection of linear infrastructure.”

Significantly, the K-State Polytechnic Campus Applied Aviation Research Center will assist in instruction and flight operations. Their efforts will give the FAA additional insights and data to prove the case for BVLOS.

UAS Executive Director of the K-State Polytechnic Applied Aviation Research Center, Kurt Carraway, had this to add, “We look forward to leveraging this waiver to integrate UAS technology into the transmission line inspection process.”

“We are certain that utilities will be able to quickly realize a return on investment while mitigating safety to their maintenance personnel and increasing the reliability of their infrastructure to the general public. True BVLOS flights have been limited in the past and these development are significant. Visual observer and ground-based radar are no longer required for these missions and this demonstrates the confidence authorities have found in quality BVLOS flights.

“Flying rural missions like these without a human pilot onboard or costly radar on the ground is exponentially safer and more cost-effective,” said Iris Automation CEO and Co-Founder Alexander Harmsen. “The FAA is trusting us to pave the way for a safer, scalable future together with this precedent-setting second approval of our system.”

These new developments help to advance the opportunities for well-managed BVLOS operations and it is encouraging to see the FAA and other authorities working closely with the industry. This bodes well for the future potential of this technology.

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