The commercial drone industry is currently undergoing a massive paradigm shift. When UAS (unmanned aerial systems) first appeared on the scene and began to be used for civilian applications such as photography and inspection, regulations were put in place in many jurisdictions around the world to ensure that the risk of accidents was kept to a minimum. Since drone technology was in its infancy, and the industry lacked safety solutions such as detect-and-avoid (DAA) systems, these regulations were extremely limiting, and included such restrictions as visual line of sight-only operations.
As the industry continued to expand, operators reached the limits of what was possible under the initial regulations, and the demand for additional capabilities such as automated operations and BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flights to be made legal grew rapidly.
The FAA waiver process – a first step towards advanced drone operations
As a stopgap solution that would allow commercial drone operators to safely and legally deviate from certain restrictions, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced the concept of waivers. Companies and organizations that successfully complete the waiver approval process are able to undertake a number of specific operations that are otherwise outlawed by the FAA’s Part 107 legislation. This system was designed to allow the drone industry to continue to advance in the absence of concrete regulations concerning BVLOS, flights over people and infrastructure, and other such missions.
The FAA waiver system still faces a number of shortcomings. It only applies to specific timeframes and geographic locations, which would mean a lot of tedious re-submitting of applications and paperwork for ambitious companies that wish to scale up and operate their drones more broadly.
Type certification – a more suitable process for scaling up
In order to allow the industry to progress further, the FAA has also introduced a Type Certification process. Type certification is an approval of an aircraft’s design, including all components such as engines and flight control systems, based upon a set of airworthiness criteria. It has been used for decades in manned aviation, but only in recent years has the FAA created a version that is applicable to the unique needs of UAS.
Once one specimen of an unmanned aircraft platform has been type-certified, this can then be automatically applied to all future identical units that roll off the production line, saving a lot of time and hassle for drone manufacturers. As part of the process, type-certified aircraft can also be automatically approved for certain advanced operations such as flights over people and BVLOS, doing away with the need for case-by-case waivers.
The type certification process involves submitting a significant amount of evidence in support of the applicant’s case. This includes operational concepts, risk mitigation strategies, flight test results, and adherence to noise and emissions levels.
Type certification is currently a highly flexible process that takes into account the unique designs and performance criteria of different UAS. It is intended to allow the industry to grow and innovate, and for operators to scale up their activities, until more concrete airworthiness processes can be identified and put in place.
Airobotics’ fully automated drone-in-a-box system
One of the first companies in the world to be granted a Type Certificate, and the first to achieve this milestone for an autonomous security and data capture platform, is Airobotics. After a rigorous four-year process, the company’s Optimus-1EX system has been certified to conduct BVLOS operations over people and public roads without the need to apply for case-by-case waivers.
The Optimus-1EX is a fully automated drone-in-a-box system designed for next-generation smart city applications, with the ability to provide on-demand aerial data gathering in complex urban environments. The system can automatically swap out batteries and payloads, allowing one unit to serve a variety of needs. Airobotics seeks to supply the Optimus-1EX for industrial use cases such as inspection, mapping and surveying, and construction, as well as for security and public safety applications. The company envisages fleets of Optimus drones acting as permanent infrastructure in cities across the United States, offering these commercial, industrial and first responder services.
Cellular communications for safe BVLOS and urban drone operations
In order to convince the FAA that the Optimus-1EX design was worthy of Type Certification and suitable for approval for automated BVLOS operations, Airobotics had to submit a robust safety case. A key component of this involved ensuring a continuous link between central command and the multiple remote Optimus stations.
Initial experiments with traditional RF-based datalinks proved unsatisfactory, with showstopping issues related to interference and range. The company needed a different connectivity solution that would ensure that Optimus drones could operate safely over people and infrastructure in a variety of different communications environments without the risk of losing connection.
Airobotics decided to implement a cellular-based communications system on board the Optimus-1EX, and turned to Elsight for the solution.
How Halo helped Airobotics achieve its unprecedented milestone
Elsight’s Halo is a lightweight and compact cellular connectivity solution that can be easily integrated into almost any drone platform. Capable of accepting up to four SIM cards from the same or multiple providers, it uses sophisticated cellular bonding to deliver a critical redundancy capability. The Halo hardware monitors the conditions of all networks and datalinks in real time, and if the primary link loses connection, the system will automatically and seamlessly switch to a backup.
Halo’s ability to ensure smooth and continuous operations even in highly challenging and dynamic communications environments made it a crucial asset in Airobotics’ achievement of FAA Type Certification status. If you are developing a mission-critical drone platform and hoping to undertake a similar journey towards airworthiness, get in touch to see how Elsight can help.