Drone inspections can be particularly valuable during natural disasters, and U.S. regulators have demonstrated willingness to relax restrictions on beyond visual line of sight operations. Verizon Communications Inc. yesterday announced that its Skyward unit has received a temporary waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration allowing the company’s pilots to fly the Percepto Sparrow drone from their homes to inspect critical communications infrastructure near the Big Hollow wildfire in Washington.
With multiple natural disasters occurring across the U.S., the ability to safely inspect sites that support critical communications for first responders has never been more important or necessary, said New York-based Verizon.
“At a moment when we are facing dangerous consequences of climate change and coping with a global pandemic, maintaining the Verizon Network has never been more important,” stated Rima Qureshi, chief strategy officer at Verizon. “Innovations in airborne technology have enhanced our ability to inspect our sites without putting engineers in harm’s way and provide our first responders with reliable communications. We appreciate the FAA’s swift action in granting the waiver, which allows us to deploy a network-connected drone and provide critical services, safely and effectively.”
Skyward preps for BVLOS flight
Although the FAA can grant “beyond visual line of sight,” or BVLOS, waivers to businesses that prove they can fly drones safely, an onsite pilot or visual observer has still been generally required.
In preparation for crises such as this, Skyward spent nearly a year testing and proving that it could safely fly without onsite personnel. In addition to the groundbreaking nature of the flight, the waiver itself is a milestone for remote deployment of drones in the U.S.
“We’ve built a BVLOS capability consisting of a remotely deployable drone system, weather monitoring systems like those used at airports, Skyward’s Aviation Management Platform, and state-of-the-art airborne safety systems that allow us to check the surrounding airspace for other aircraft,” said Skyward’s Director of Aviation Development Centers, whose name is X. “Verizon’s 4G LTE network connected these systems, giving the team’s operations lead in Alaska a near real-time picture of the operation from 1,600 miles away.”
The waiver was granted through the FAA’s expedited Special Governmental Interest process. The waiver applies to drone support operations for critical infrastructure that maintain communications for emergency responders and extends until Friday, Sept. 25. The waiver permits operations 24 hours a day, with less than three miles of visibility, and no pilot or observer on site.
Verizon responds to wildfires
Since Sept. 9, the Big Hollow Fire has burned more than 24,000 acres and caused mandatory evacuation orders in the area. The location of the critical communications infrastructure itself is within blocks of a Level 1 evacuation order, and the air quality was unsafe for humans. Verizon said the Percepto Sparrow flights have not only allowed its engineers to confirm that the integrity and operability of its infrastructure was not affected, but they also allowed them to do so without putting people in harm’s way.
Verizon said it continues to closely monitor dozens of wildfires burning in the western U.S., and its network is currently performing with no significant impacts to date.
The company added that its Verizon Response Team (VRT) is available 24/7 to provide on-demand, emergency assistance to first responders. It said it has mobilized charging stations, Wi-Fi hotspots, special equipment, emergency vehicles, and more to support local, state and federal agencies in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
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