Most drone or UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) operations are currently limited to short distances within the remote pilot’s line of sight. This means that the remote pilots should keep their drone in sight to see and avoid other things while flying. This is known as flying within Visual Line of Sight (VLOS).
However, unlocking the benefits of UAS technology for applications as varied as critical infrastructure inspection, precision agriculture, public safety, and package delivery requires Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations that allows drones to operate autonomously without the need for a maintained visual line of sight of the operators. They unleash significant opportunities for greater efficiency, productivity, safety, and economic value.
While more traditional visual line of sight (VLOS) flights can only operate to a limited maximum distance, BVLOS flights do not have to be within the operator’s line of sight, helping improve efficiencies and increase the mapping potential for companies. For example, BVLOS offers the ability to map larger areas quickly and efficiently or survey remote and/or hazardous sites more easily and safely. Given the vast potential of flying BVLOS, there is a significant commercial opportunity to scale up the technology in a fast, efficient, and reliable way.
By flying beyond the visual line of sight, drones allow businesses to replace traditional, more expensive methods such as helicopters, satellites, or climbing on structures that don’t normally yield the automated, consistent, and precise data collection that drones can deliver. As a result, businesses reap three key benefits from drones: improved (1) safety, (2) accuracy, and (3) efficiency.
Specific to efficiency, commercial businesses that utilize BVLOS drone operations can significantly reduce expenses and maximize their investment in drone technologies. BVLOS improves safety by preventing fatal crashes or accidents from having to manually climb towers to take readings.
BVLOS flights can cover a wide area and collect high-quality data much more quickly than traditional means, so, for example, insurance claims of total loss can be indemnified faster. For instance, a company that inspects 10,000 miles of power lines a year would save $1.7 million in the first year of operation, a saving that could amount to $9 million over five years.
Based on a case study provided by Precision Hawk, electric utility companies, for example, can either use a manned helicopter or drones to inspect power lines. With a manned helicopter, the costs range from $40-$700 per mile, while, with a BVLOS drone, the cost ranges from $10-$25 per mile of inspection. Accordingly, that utility company can save up to $1.7 million per year by using drones. These potential savings could be applied to many more businesses across various industries. Thus, BVLOS drone operations allow companies to save money so they can reinvest, innovate, and create more jobs.
Potential BVLOS applications
- Street mapping a city with optical and acoustic sensors
- Transporting parcels from a distribution center to a customer
- Long-distance aerial surveys of a highway construction project, long railroad lines, wind farms, etc.
- Inspection of transmission lines, line sag, pole condition, insulator condition, vegetation, etc.
- Improvement in safety while mapping high-risk areas, such as oil and gas facilities or mining sites.
- Persistent surveillance at the scene of an incident operated from a control center.
Despite the benefits of operations like BVLOS flights, the lengthy and often complex approvals process has created a barrier in recent years. The current regulatory scheme of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prevents drones from operating beyond the operator’s visual line of sight unless an operator obtains a “special, hard-to-get waiver” from the FAA.
Obtaining waivers to fly BVLOS is cumbersome because of stringent requirements and can take three to six months, which is longer than most innovative companies can afford to wait. Further, 99% of the first 1200 BVLOS applicants have failed to receive approval. In 2018, only 16% of the 11,325 applications had been approved. Thousands of companies applied for an FAA waiver to fly BVLOS in 2018, with only 23 approved.
Effectively, the FAA is hampering “the next big opportunity” for commercial drone operators since many applications cannot execute without BVLOS. Thus, unlocking the full potential of commercial drones require regulators to allow drones to fly BVLOS.
Therefore, it is important to maintain a two-way collaboration between the regulatory bodies and UAV operators to move forward. It will allow both parties to develop regulatory frameworks using mission data and the data gathered from drone testing, ultimately helping to make advanced drone operation planning more accessible for commercial companies.