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Unless you were watching for it, the recently announced industry report, solicited by the Federal Aviation Administration and titled Unmanned Aircraft Systems Beyond Visual Line of Sight Aviation Rulemaking Committee, might have slipped past you. Yet hidden in its 200+ pages is nothing less than the key to a revolution in industry and critical infrastructure.
Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) regulations would govern the usage of drones, piloted and autonomous, that fly far beyond their operators’ location. While drone companies and operators have to date been able to apply for special permissions for BVLOS flights, these have been issued on a case-by-case or geography-specific basis.
The industry report challenges this status quo – and if adopted by the FAA – represents a major step towards standardizing and streamlining safe BVLOS flights at mass scale.
Some of the recommendations the FAA made include establishing an acceptable level of risk for drone flight that works in operations across the board, determining right of way rules in low altitude areas and establishing a BVLOS rule, which creates a process for determining if drones qualify for BVLOS flight.
The BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) report also represents a tectonic shift for industry. The segment most impacted by the new FAA direction, autonomous drones, have proven themselves invaluable for inspections, emergency response and security for large-scale industrial installations.
This means that the smoother the path to BVLOS flights, the faster industry (and the American public) will begin to reap the safety, environmental, productivity and cost-savings benefits of autonomous drones.
Who benefits and why?
Once the US autonomous industrial drone space is regulated, based on the common-sense, risk-based, performance-based framework delineated in the ARC report, the industrial autonomous drone revolution already underway will accelerate massively in scale without the current regulatory impediments. The ARC report is the first step on the road to unlocking the BVLOS marketplace.
Heavy industrial facilities such as utilities or refineries are already proving the value of autonomous drones at a handful of facilities around the world. And a new BVLOS rule would enable heavy industry to reap the benefits of autonomous drones at a much larger scale.
For example, utility companies often depend on ground crews to respond to damaged infrastructure after a storm – a slow and tedious process. With automated drones, power grid monitoring and inspection can be done much more quickly to shorten reaction times, and get power back on for more customers in an expedited way.
Oil refineries will leverage autonomous drones on a huge scale to conduct remote and continuous inspection and monitoring of crucial site assets -eliminating the need for human inspection of hard-to-reach equipment like towers, floating roofs on tank farms, and pipelines. This will make it far easier for these companies to comply with regulations regarding emissions and other parameters with potential environmental impact – enabling constant and thorough maintenance and monitoring of site assets. With new BVLOS regulations, unmanned leak and emission detections at every US refinery could become a reality to the enormous benefit of the environment.
At large scale mining operations, autonomous drones will automate pile inspections at scale for maximized productivity and streamlined logistics management. They will closely monitor heavy equipment with thermal imaging for signs of wear, and remotely and continuously monitor conveyor belts, trucks and equipment at multiple sites, automatically detecting issues and reporting findings to the company’s operations center.
And solar power providers will use autonomous drones for smart tracking of components like solar panels, transformers and cables – facilitating closer monitoring of asset health and more effective predictive maintenance.
Drones will be able to conduct topographical surveys of existing and potential sites, to remotely monitor the progress and quality of work at construction sites, to improve work procedures, and increase worker safety. They will also provide better site security – patrolling and monitoring unfenced sites, and automatically alerting of intrusions or anomalies.
The bottom line
The ARC’s approach to BVLOS, if and when adopted by the FAA, will enable large-scale, high-quality inspections of critical infrastructure to help ensure greater reliability of critical services. Heavy industry will be able to minimize their environmental footprint while boosting employee safety at scale. By facilitating the next stage of the autonomous industrial robotics revolution, the industry and the federal government are working together to promote enhanced industrial site safety and security, a rise in productivity and efficiency, and increased profitability for all.
About the Author
Neta Gliksman is the head of the policy and government affairs’ department at Percepto, working closely with regulatory bodies, customers and other drone solution providers to secure Percepto’s leadership and influence in drone regulation.