Swiss drone company gains landmark FAA approval

SwissDrones, which builds uncrewed helicopters designed to fly over long ranges for inspection, surveillance, and public safety applications, just gained a landmark approval for its SDO 50 V2 aircraft from the Federal Aviation Administration that has huge implications for the state of beyond line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights.

SwissDrones this month announced that its SDO 50 V2 single-turbine uncrewed helicopter system has been granted BVLOS authorization for its aerial service provider, Phoenix Air Unmanned (PAU), to fly drones not just in specific areas, but across the entire United States. That same aircraft has already received a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC-EC) from the FAA.

That’s big news for PAU, which will now be able to not only broaden where it can execute its aerial services, but also be able to fly its drones over more extensive distances. In particular, this means the ability to conduct extended-range inspection and patrol flights over linear infrastructure under the same regulations as traditional-crewed aircraft.  

But the news has far more wide-reaching impacts than simply benefiting PAU. It’s the first of its kind approval to come out of the FAA, which SwissDrones says had been three years in the making. Critically for all players in the drone industry, this authorization establishes a clear regulatory pathway and sets a precedent for other organizations utilizing the SDO 50 V2 to pursue BVLOS approvals for their commercial operations.

Photo courtesy of SwissDrones

What to know about SwissDrones and PAU

SwissDrones was founded in 2013 and is based in Zurich, Switzerland. It manufactures long-range, uncrewed helicopter systems from its manufacturing site about an hour drive away in Buchs, Switzerland.  Its unique twin-rotor aircraft are designed to replace crewed helicopters at significantly reduced costs and lower carbon emissions. It’s been making big moves this year, largely driven by a seven-figure funding round earlier this year.

Its flagship product is the aforementioned SDO 50 V2. Here are some key specs of the SDO 50 V2:

  • Maximum weight of 191 pounds
  • Can carry sensors weighing between 30 and 70 pounds
  • Can maintain flights lasting over 3 hours

SwissDrones has also said the aircraft’s extended endurance makes it ideal for missions requiring multiple sensors, offering nearly ten times the endurance and three times the lift capacity compared to aircraft weighing under 55 pounds that operate under Part 107 waivers.

SwissDrones also offers services to operate those systems for other businesses, in addition to working with other aerial service providers (like PAU) to operate its drones as well.

And beyond its significant FAA approval, SwissDrones already has a strong foothold in Europe. SwissDrones is among the first organizations to obtain a European drone operator license from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) called the Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC). That certificate, which was issued by Transport Malta, grants SwissDrones the authority to self-authorize flight operations for its aircraft across EASA countries, encompassing BVLOS operations within the specified certificate limits. 

So how was its FAA approval done? Going back to that “three years in the making” statement, the two companies have been working together for the past three years to build a robust concept of what safe BVLOS operations actually entail. Together, they conducted flight trials around the U.S., and used those to prove to the FAA that all regulatory and safety requirements were met.

So what will PAU do with its newfound authorizations? PAU, which is an American drone service provider based in Cartersville, Georgia, said it intends to use its SwissDrones aircraft for a range of data-gathering tasks, including high-resolution imaging, LiDAR data collection and thermal imaging. That aligns with the company’s existing strategy of delivering accurate LiDAR data and high resolution imagery for survey and mapping, utility inspections, and engineering design.

Phoenix Unmanned said that with the SwissDrones news, its flights could now run distances of 60 miles, and perhaps even more, enabling it to conduct multiple inspections within a single flight.

“This unprecedented authorization empowers us to conduct BVLOS operations for utilities nationwide,” said Will Lovett, Managing Director of Phoenix Air Unmanned, in a prepared statement. “The SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 offers a safer, more efficient, and cost-effective alternative to traditional infrastructure inspection methods.”

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