The commercial drone industry and government organisations see BVLoS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) as the greatest barrier to commercial drones reaching their true potential. The challenges of BVLoS are numerous and whilst technology has advanced quickly, legislation has naturally struggled to keep up. The latest CAA exemptions offered to the emergency services in the UK, coupled with pioneering work of some leading manufacturers/service providers have paved the way for the future use of BVLoS operations.
Updated 22nd September 2017: BVLOS exemption for UK emergency services.
The rules right now
The current rules in the UK state that drone operations must be carried out within normal visual line of site – up to 400ft (122m) high and 500m in every direction. Of course, there are very good safety reasons for these restrictions. A drone is a lethal weapon in the wrong hands, even when line of sight rules are being adhered to. Imagine how much more dangerous a drone flying out of sight would be. That’s why it’s very hard to get permission for a BVLOS operation.
But compare that line of sight distance to what a helicopter can do or a plane. It’s a pretty limited area and it means that drone operations are automatically restricted. The potential for BVLOS operations is huge, across a multitude of sectors. Imagine a drone that could fly over massive fields hundreds of miles square, for example or one which could search for survivors or pinpoint collapsed buildings and roads across thousands of miles of inhospitable, highly challenging territory. But it will take time, experience and serious investment in the right technology to make these operations commonplace.
At the moment, authorised BVLOS operations are few and far between in a civilian context – they do take place regularly in the military. That said, they’re slowly starting to happen.
Drone company senseFly has just gained the first ‘anytime’ BVLOS licence in Switzerland, allowing it to carry out BVLOS operations anytime, anywhere in the country using its eBee drones. However, that doesn’t mean a free-for-all – the drones will still be subject to restrictions. They can only fly at a maximum height of 500ft, which increases to 1,000ft above urban areas – and observers must monitor a 2km radium of airspace to check for other aircraft. These observers must have instant communication with the drone operator in case of an emergency.
The same drone is also being used in the UK for ELOS (Extended Line of Sight) operations – operators ATEC-3D used an eBee to survey Littlestone beach in Kent for the UK Environment Agency. The company had to apply for CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) permission for the operation. It used two ground observers 500m apart, and the eBee was allowed to fly up to 1,500m from its operator. The company also notified the local air traffic control room of the operation to create a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) – a notification of the operation to other airspace users.
BVLOS in action
And there are clearly plenty of opportunities out there, as long as a company is prepared to put in some serious work proving its health and safety and risk assessment models are sound.
COPTRZ consulted on a 10 million Euro contract for the European Maritime Safety Agency, won by its sister company Martek Marine, of which BVLOS operations play a big part. The company have now been awarded a place on a 67 million Euro contract for the same agency. Drones will be flying more than 50km from their ground stations over the sea to monitor pollutants coming from ship emissions. “We had a team of experts who are experienced in beyond visual line of sight with regards to the military,” says Steve Coulson of COPTRZ. “We were able to put in the necessary protocols, the documentation, health and safety risks, the risk assessments, and also specify the hardware and software that could do this type of job safely.
“The permissions are currently going through the relevant European member states and their relevant civil aviation authorities. Obviously, there is less chance of damage at sea than there is on land. But still, if something fell out of the sky and hit a gas or oil tanker, then the consequences could be dire.”
BVLOS Success stories
The first success stories are just starting to emerge. In a groundbreaking operation, Canadian UAVs and Lockheed Martin have just completed the first ever BVLOS inspection of pipelines, well sites and power lines at the Transport Canada Compliant Lockheed Martin Indago 2, at the Foremost Testing Range.
“The ability to use BVLOS for UAV inspection and survey purposes would considerably increase safety, economic, and environmental considerations, as many of the assets and areas we are interested in surveying are located in regions of dense muskeg and access is significantly limited,” says Beau Chaitan, Environmental and Regulatory Engineer at Canadian oil sands company MEG Energy Corp.
“Using traditional techniques on the ground for performing integrity inspections on remote sites or conducting reclamation monitoring would require the construction of either winter ice roads, or extensive summer access. This is not only an expensive exercise, but it’s also environmentally disruptive, as it creates numerous linear disturbances that potentially affect wildlife.”
Changing the rules
Already, some authorities and areas are starting to consider changing or amending the regulations surrounding drone flight in order to better enable responsible BVLOS operations. If this happens, it can represent another business opportunity, as areas with these regulations can attract businesses who want to carry out these operations.
In January 2017, for example, the USA’s FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) approved beyond-line-of-sight operations for the Northern Plains UAS (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) Test Site in North Dakota. This allows companies to come to the state to conduct UAS operations that aren’t possible anywhere else in the US, points out Senator John Hoeven – and will buy amlodipine online allow drones to carry out even more tasks.
Writing in the local paper the Grand Forks Herald, he says: “This authorization will attract government and military agencies to our state, such as the Air Force, the Department of Homeland Security and NASA, as they work to integrate UAS into the national airspace.
“Someday, [drones] will be used routinely by farmers to more efficiently irrigate and reduce pesticide use, by builders and architects on construction sites and by engineers to monitor pipelines and transmission lines. The uses are limited only by the imagination.”
So what else needs to happen to increase opportunities around BVLOS? Improving the tech is vital. Obviously, if you’re flying something remotely, you need to ensure that it’s not going to damage property or people.
That means better communication systems, better-searching systems and better redundancy on a drone’s telemetry. Triple redundancy, for example, means that if one line of telemetry stops working, it will be backed up – then, if that second line fails, it too will be backed up.
A civil aviation authority will always closely examine the hardware proposed in any BVLOS application – its safety system and redundancies, if it can deploy a parachute if it loses altitude in a certain number of seconds, the quality of its automatic sense and avoid systems – as well as the quality of its cameras and other diagnostic equipment.
But aside from the drone itself, what about the environment in which it would be operating? UTM (UAS Traffic Management) systems are a big area of opportunity here. NASA – no stranger to managing air traffic – among others, is looking at ways of coming up with airspace integrations system, which would allow many different drones to operate safely, including BVLOS operations.
In October 2016, it conducted the first ‘out of sight’ drone tests at Reno-Stead Airport, Nevada. Two drone drones flew beyond their commanders’ lines of sight during the test. As many as two drones were operated in the same test airspace, separated by altitude and within sight of their operators.
The pilots used the NASA-developed UTM research platform to gain information about the locations of all the other drones, and how close they were to other air traffic and hazards. UTM also let other airspace users know any potential hazards and conflicting operations that could affect their plans.
One important ‘first’ achieved was a demonstration of dynamic re-routing capability, allowing an unmanned, airborne vehicle to request flight plan changes. This function allows operators to update their missions in response to either changing airspace conditions or new mission objectives.
In an interview in October 2016, president of Gryphon Systems Tony Albanese – whose company is one of those working with NASA – said: “It’s hard to overstate the significance of how a UTM system could revolutionise the industry—not just for the UAS industry but for many commercial applications.
“A widespread UTM system would enable the commercial use of UAS BVLOS, unlocking the vertical dimension for dozens of applications from search and rescue to package delivery to rail and pipeline inspection.”
Flying BVLOS: Exemptions for Emergency Services
Obviously, there are times when flying a drone beyond visual line of sight will be of real benefit to the emergency services, particularly in life or death situations.
The Civil Aviation Authority has taken this into account and released General Exemption E 4506 for the emergency services which will allow pilots to fly beyond visual line of sight in certain situations. The exemption states that it is to allow a more flexible, but controlled, use of a small unmanned aircraft during an emergency operation where an increased risk to life becomes apparent at short notice (e.g. missing person scenarios where it is clearly evident that swift action is required). It should be viewed in a similar fashion to that where Police, Fire or Ambulance vehicles are permitted to proceed through red traffic light signals, disregard ‘keep left’ signs, exceed speed limits etc. It is not intended to be used for longer-term planned, or routine operations, where a more detailed permission or exemption would be required.
Emergency Services who plan to operate drones in situations outlined above are encouraged to attend a BVLoS Training Course where they can learn more about operating their drone at distance.
BVLOS: A long-term investment
So will we be seeing skies full of automatic drones in five years’ time, operated in control rooms far away? Not unless there’s a massive loosening of regulations, to be sure. All those drone headline-grabbers – drones replacing postmen or pizza delivery drivers, for example – would need to be operating way out of an operator’s line of sight to be at all cost-effective. But the foundations are certainly, slowly being put in place for the system necessary for these drone activities to work.
Certainly, making predictions in such a fast-moving industry is a risky business. But chances are that in five years’ time, BVLOS operations will be much more common – they won’t necessarily be on our high streets or hovering around our homes but they’ll be playing a significant part in many of our industries. To make a success of BVLOS operations, companies will need to invest a lot of money, resources and long-term commitment. The benefits are obvious: now it’s up to the industry to convince the rest of the world that BVLOS operations are the future, and can be both safe and effective.
In order to gain a BVLoS approval from a national aviation authority, it is essential to have a safety case which covers many factors, and approvals tend at the moment to be issued very much on a case by case basis. However, to get the approval it is necessary to address many questions:
Where do you want to fly?
What class of airspace is it?
What is the local population density?
How mature is the technology you are using?
What will you do if GPS fails?
How will you avoid other aircraft?
Based on proven cases we will look at these topics and offer guidance on the technologies and the processes available to overcome the barriers which currently constrain many unmanned operations. Reliance on a ground-based pilot using visual contact with his “drone” changes to a totally different task once the drone becomes an aircraft which is no longer visible and the pilot needs to use an instrument type display and map to monitor and track the aircraft.