What is over the horizon for commercial drone operations?

By Asaf Raz - Director of Marketing | December 7, 2020

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BVLOS flight operations

Unmanned aviation has firmly entrenched itself in modern life. While its benefits are already being felt across a wide range of sectors, a huge seam of potential is still yet to be tapped. The key to unlocking this next level of utility is the widespread adoption of BVLOS – Beyond Visual Line of Sight flight operations.

 

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Who will benefit from the next level of drone operations?

As the name suggests, BVLOS involves drones continuing their operations out of sight of a human observer. While defense forces around the world have a long history of flying BVLOS missions, frameworks that enable flights in civilian airspace are only just beginning to emerge. 

Successful adoption of BVLOS operations will bring the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of commercial and industrial drone flights to another level, as the aircraft will be permitted to fly longer without having to return to base or be handed over to another operator, and achieve more in a single flight. BVLOS will also be crucial for a variety of drone-based public services, including law enforcement, medical delivery, and search and rescue.

The increased proliferation of BVLOS flights is also likely to drive the development of new advanced unmanned aerial systems that can take advantage of the new regulations, which in turn will then push the boundaries of what is possible with BVLOS – a kind of “arms race” that will benefit the entire industry.

 

From the visual line of sight to beyond

Unlike military usage of UAVs, which dates back decades, commercial and industrial use of drones is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration authorized the first commercial drone flight over water in 2013, paving the way for the first land-based flight permit the following year.

Almost all drone flights in civilian airspace are currently conducted within visual line of sight (VLOS), and in most jurisdictions around the world, this includes all amateur flights. For commercial UAV operations, permits may also be given for EVLOS (extended visual line of sight) missions, which allow the drone to fly beyond the VLOS range of the pilot as long as additional human observers are present to cover the extra distance.

Commercial drone flights could theoretically be covered by a successive chain of human observers that ensure the entire airspace surrounding the drone’s flight path is safe at all times, and flights have also been made using ground-based radars to perform the same function. For operations that cover the vast distances required for applications such as large-scale infrastructure applications, both the costs and the logistics involved quickly make this an impractical solution.

Some BVLOS drones have used FPV (first-person view) technology that transmits a live camera feed of the surrounding area back to the operator. However, this setup provides subpar depth perception and peripheral vision, and the industry is moving towards detect-and-avoid solutions such as Iris Automation’s Casia, which also offer the advantage of potential full automation of the drone flight. 

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The challenges – paperwork and practical

As with all matters in the world of aviation, the first priority is safety, and for good reasons. The human impact of a high-profile drone crash in civilian airspace is obvious, and as we have seen in the world of autonomous driving, could set the development of widespread BVLOS drone flights back by years.

Regulatory frameworks are still in their infancy, and again, as anyone who works in aviation will know, these wheels turn slowly! Aviation authorities are incredibly picky about who they hand out their coveted BVLOS waivers and certifications to – the FAA, for instance, turns down over 99% of applications. 

One of the big challenges in BVLOS flight safety is finding a solution for drone command, control, and data transmission that works any time, anywhere, and achieves as close to 100% uptime as possible. This is important not only to ensure safe operations at all times but also so that the drone can do its job at all times and keep the all-important data flowing. 

The best way to avoid rejection by regulatory bodies, enable your BVLOS applications to take flight, and provide superior customer service is to use a proven communications solution that provides robust performance, flexible data transmission, and the highest levels of safety and security. Is this still a pipe dream for the drone industry?

 

An always-on, highly adaptable solution for BVLOS  communications 

Elsight’s Halo platform has been engineered from the ground up to provide an innovative solution to connectivity issues that often plague long-range drone operations. By combining multiple cellular and radio-frequency links into one seamless communications pipeline, Halo maintains high-bandwidth transmission that automatically utilizes the best available method. The future-proof system is even ready to take advantage of 5G and satellite communications as these become more widespread.

Halo also provides fully encrypted real-time security, preventing malicious attacks that could compromise the operation of the drone or the integrity of its data, and thus solving another main concern of regulatory bodies. 

 

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