Drones gear up to fly beyond visible line of sight

Based on three years of BVLOS research with the Federal Aviation Administration, PrecisionHawk has incorporated the latest tracking and detect-and-avoid technology into its own products.

The future promised by the domestic drone industry is one where car accidents can be mapped in a matter of moments, infrastructure can be inspected without putting humans into precarious situations and land can be surveyed faster than traditional methods allow. The ability to actually deliver these applications, though, requires something that’s currently prohibited under federal law: flying unmanned aerial systems beyond a drone operator's field of view.

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Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations issued in 2016 outlined who could fly drones and under what conditions. It set up a number of different safety restrictions, one of which outlawed flights beyond the operator's visual line of sight.

To address beyond visible line of sight (BVLOS) limitations, the Federal Aviation Administration worked with drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk for three years on what it calls Focus Area Two of the Pathfinder Program, which was created to speed the introduction of small drones into the national airspace.  PrecisionHawk specifically addressed extended visual line of sight operations in rural areas, which would allow greater UAS use for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations.

Everything is coming together to make this ability a reality, PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen told GCN.

“2018 is going to be the year of flying beyond visual line of sight both because of the improved knowledge around best practices, safety cases and regulations as well as where the technology is,” Chasen said.

A recently released Pathfinder report outlines best practices for safe BVLOS flight and makes a number of recommendations -- from the training a pilot should receive to what a drone should look like. The technology, however, will play a major role in making drone operators aware of other aircraft are in the airspace beyond what they can see.

“[T]he set of assistive technologies used for airspace surveillance must provide some level of current position and trajectory information for air traffic in the flight area,” the report reads.

PrecisionHawk has developed a drone outfitted with the technology recommended in the Pathfinder report. It can automatically identify all cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft within a 10 km radius. It includes a GPS locator that persistently broadcasts the drone’s location and trajectory. It carries a data feed showing the location of all aircraft outfitted with the FAA NextGen's Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology, which is used on most larger aircraft.

The drone can receive the information in real time during flight across a number of channels -- including cellular and satellite -- depending on what is available, Chasen said.

The drones will be able to avoid other aircraft even if a communications link can’t be established or if the nearby plane is not outfitted with ADS-B technology thanks to an acoustic-based detection system that can hear a plane from 10 kilometers away. As soon as the drone hears a plane it notifies its operator. If the operator doesn’t respond to the alert, then the UAS will lower itself once the plane is within two to three kilometers of the drone, Chasen said.

The system also includes flight planning and management software that integrates BVLOS features. The software will also automatically detect if the device is near an airport that accepts flight plan approvals through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, and automatically submit a flight request. There are currently 127 airports where LAANC has been established after 83 were added this month. The goal is to have this capability operational in 500 airports by the end of 2018.

PrecisionHawk was partner in several applications for the FAA's Drone Integration Pilot Program. The winners are expected to be named this week, but the exact date of the announcement is unclear.  

“We’re hearing it should be made soon,” Chasen said.

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