Summer 2023 BVLOS drone dispatches: big approvals for Skydio, Percepto and more

Summer might be the time when most folks go on vacation, but for many folk within the drone industry, the work is kicking into full gear at this very moment. That’s especially true for drone companies working on the beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) side of things, meaning companies working on building safe ways that drones can fly well past the pilot’s sightline. And there are tons of companies making summer 2023 BVLOS progress.

Because there are so many updates in the realm of BVLOS as of late, I’ve rounded them up into one post. Here’s what you need to know about summer 2023 BVLOS news:

The Skydio Dock. Photo courtesy of Skydio.

Skydio receives BVLOS approval in Japan

Skydio is one of the most popular American drone companies, both for its follow-me drones targeted at consumer and other drone photographers (notably its Skydio 2+ drone), but also its enterprise offerings like the Skydio X2 and related products like adaptive mapping software Skydio 3D Scan.

Given that, Skydio is a favorite among many American drone pilots. But it’s now set to be a favorite with Japanese customers too, given that this June it received approval from the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) to remotely fly drones using Skydio Dock and Remote Ops beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). The approval extends nationwide throughout the entire country of Japan (albeit a few, limited exceptions for certain airspace), and applies to flights occurring any time of day. Though, operators will still need to submit notification of their flight area ahead of takeoff using JCAB’s web portal.

Under the JCAB approval, Skydio will not be required to use visual observers or other technology to detect crewed aircraft, meaning drones operate more like drones (with fewer humans involved).

That’s set to unlock major commercial operations in Japan, such as monitoring complex infrastructure, inspecting security perimeters, or assessing a site following a natural disaster — all in a manner that cuts back on the need for actual human involvement (and likely creating more efficiency).

Skydio Dock, which is critical to the JCAB approval, is a relatively new sort of drone dock that’s only in the hands of early access partners for now. But it’s growing in the U.S., including a critical waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that allows energy company ComEd to remotely operate drones without a visual line of sight from any location across northern Illinois.

Alaskan government launches ARROW program, enabling BVLOS flights in remote areas

In certain rural communities in Alaska, you might see drones flying BVLOS this summer. That’s all due to the Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) Program, which launched just this May under the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

The ARROW will enable remote communities to use drones to conduct BVLOS missions that collect critical data, intended to be shared in a statewide GIS databased that will be used in response to natural and man-made disasters affecting critical infrastructure in historically underserved communities.

It’s not a coincidence that the ARROW project is happening in Alaska of all states, for a few reason. For starters, the ARROW Program leverages the existing FAA BEYOND Program (of which the University of Alaska-Fairbanks is a partner), and the  Alaska Center for UAS Integration (ACUASI). Additionally, Alaska has an especially-high number of remote communities that are vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes, wildfires, floods, and extreme weather events, relative to other U.S. states.

And speaking of Skydio, Alaska’s ARROW program will leverage Skydio’s drones as the actual vehicles used to conduct the BVLOS flights.

Funding for the ARROW program comes from the USDOT’s SMART Grants Program, which was created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and provides competitive grants worth a collective $500 million to transportation agencies that are seeking to test advanced technology like drones.

Photo courtesy of Percepto

Percepto earns BVLOS waiver for staff to operate drones near U.S. critical infrastructure sites

In May 2023, Percepto received a BVLOS waiver that enables employees of Percepto to operate the company’s own autonomous drones at any critical infrastructure site in the U.S. — all without requiring them to be at the actual site. It also eliminates any requirements to use ground-based or airborne detect and avoid (DAA) systems, which can be cumbersome.

More specifically, the waiver authorizes low risk “shielded” BVLOS operations 200 feet above and around assets located on critical infrastructure sites. At non-critical infrastructure sites, shielded BVLOS operations are permitted an even-closer 50 feet higher than the tallest obstruction located within a half-mile of the site.

While Percepto sells products for any customers to run their own drone operations, this waiver only applies to Percepto employees who would operate the drones — as well as to customers who have been trained and certified by Percepto on the company’s systems.

Though, for everyone else, seeking to use Percepto products for BVLOS flights within the U.S., a Percepto spokesperson said the company would be able to “support and guide customers to gain a similarly FAA-issued waiver if they would like to self-operate drones at their facility.”

Photo courtesy of DroneUp.

DroneUp seeks BVLOS tech for its drone deliveries

One of America’s smaller drone delivery companies, DroneUp, is seeking to be a bit more powerful. This May, DroneUp announced a partnership with Iris Automation, which makes AI-based vision technology for drones designed to prevent airborne collisions (Iris’ primary product is its Casia G technology for BVLOS operations).

And under the new deal, DroneUp will employ that Casia G tech among additional sensors on its delivery drones, which will be able to detect other aircraft approaching. DroneUp already has a network of launch and recovery points in the areas it operates, so now Iris will pace nodes at those places and throughout delivery areas, enabling it to act like a cellular tower-type service providing DroneUp with visibility of its airspace.

In short, whenever an object flies into DroneUp’s operating area, Iris’ tech will send an alert to the DroneUp flight team, which in turn enables them to respond — and in theory avoid any potential collisions.

“Through the use of Casia G, DroneUp will be able to remove visual observers, creating a path to more economical scaling of their operations while simultaneously improving safety,” said Iris Automation CEO, Jon Damush.

DroneUp is perhaps most famous for operating drone deliveries with Walmart.

FAA seeks to make decisions on BVLOS — using your feedback

Between now and June 14, the FAA is seeking public comment around the expansion of BVLOS operations in certain operating environments. It’s specifically centered around flying drones in the U.S. at or below 400 feet. If granted, four companies — Phoenix Air Unmanned, uAvionix, Zipline, and UPS Flight Forward — would be able to continue to expand their FAA-approved BVLOS drone operations.

Submit your comments (or read comments submitted by others) here.

What’s the buzz on BVLOS?

BVLOS operations play a crucial role in unlocking the full potential of drone flights. Traditionally, drones have been limited to flying within the operator’s line of sight, which severely restricts their range and operational capabilities.

However, with BVLOS, drones can operate autonomously or under remote control without the need for direct visual contact, offering a multitude of benefits and opening up new possibilities across various industries.

And many governments and their airspace regulatory agencies are working to understand the balance between safety and truly enabling those types of drone operations. Within the U.S., the FAA, NASA, other federal partner agencies, and industry are collaborating to explore concepts of operation, data exchange requirements, and a supporting framework to enable multiple beyond visual line-of-sight drone operations at low altitudes (under 400 feet above ground level (AGL) in airspace where FAA air traffic services are not provided.

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