Diana Cooper is Senior Vice President of Policy & Strategy, PrecisionHawk
Following on from your Pathfinder report to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), what further work are you doing with operators/the FAA to develop more accessible beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) permissions-to-fly?
As we wrapped up our three-year Pathfinder research we wanted to help the broader industry benefit from our expertise and learn how to fly safely beyond line of sight, so we launched an expanded operations training and consulting program. We are currently working with clients to create a safety case, develop operational procedures and mitigations, and conduct flight and system training to support safe beyond line of sight operations. We take a holistic approach to working with clients beginning by understanding their business objectives, reviewing their operating experience and manuals, working together to develop a concept of operations and risk assessment, and providing the practical in-field training.
What has made the difference between getting FAA approval and not getting FAA approval for BVLOS flights – tracking technologies, safety cases and so on?
To obtain a BVLOS waiver, operators must prove to the FAA that their drone operations can be conducted safely without endangering other aircraft or people and property on the ground. Safety is a complex issue with many moving parts—the FAA evaluates applications by assessing operational risk, mitigations and residual risk.
We conducted fieldwork over the course of three years under the Pathfinder Program that focused on developing operational and safety practices, as well as recommendations for technologies that enable BVLOS flight. This substantial research effort which included more than 600 flights, 75 drone pilots in the field and 70 pilots in a simulated environment, has provided us with strong safety data to underpin our waiver application. We determined that assistive technology for detection and airspace safety as well as training are critical to achieving safe BVLOS operations, and we are making our expertise and solutions available to clients to leverage in their own applications.
Readers can explore the research and outcomes in detail here: https://www.precisionhawk.com/beyond-visual-line-of-sight-bvlos-drone-operations/
How do you see BVLOS operations in the USA developing over the next few years in terms of numbers of flights, lengths of flights, types of operations?
The Pathfinder program really paved the way for the introduction of beyond line of sight flight in the US. Part 107, the first commercial rule for small UAS operations also incorporates a waiver process that allows operators to apply for beyond line of sight approvals. PrecisionHawk and BNSF received the first BVLOS waivers in 2016, and to date about 23 have been approved. Over the next few years, the FAA will likely put out a rule for expanded operations including beyond line of sight flight. The implementation of unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems will create the needed infrastructure to enable widescale beyond line of sight operations.
Are BVLOS operations being pioneered by local/national government agencies or by the private sector?
In the US, the FAA really paved the way for beyond line of sight operations by standing up the Pathfinder program with industry. We are now starting to see industry take up our research and technology to bring beyond line of sight capability into their business operations.
What are your ambitions in the UAS traffic management (UTM) sector? Do you see yourself as a UTM service supplier or is there another role for your company?
We were one of the earliest companies to enter the UTM space years ago, and we have developed a sophisticated platform that combines airspace and ground data to enable complex integrated operations including beyond line of sight. We have invested heavily in developing this core infrastructure and building strong partnerships that will allow us to provide a variety of services to the market including airspace awareness, remote identification, de-confliction and optimization.
What are the key technical and institutional challenges facing BVLOS and urban air mobility flights? There seems to be loads of testing going on the USA but isn’t there a danger we will end up with too much uncoordinated data which will be unhelpful in demonstrating the safety cases moving from testing to actual operations?
The key challenge to advancing to beyond line of sight operations is the data conundrum – the FAA needs to develop data-driven rules; however, it’s difficult to gather data to support informed rules when very few operators are able to fly beyond line of sight. We wanted to help break through that dynamic by leveraging our Pathfinder research to allow other operators to fly beyond line of sight so that the FAA will have a variety of concepts of operations and safety cases to leverage as it moves through the rulemaking process.
What do you think are the key technical milestones that need to be achieved in areas such as identification, sense and avoid and countering rogue drone incursions into sensitive airspace areas?
To effectively address drone flight in sensitive locations, you need an integrated approach including education, airspace information, remote identification and mitigation technologies. Remote identification is fairly advanced, and there are products like our Low Altitude Tracking and Airspace Safety (LATAS) platform that can provide that functionality today. There are legal hurdles that make it challenging to test and deploy mitigation technologies, so it’s difficult to assess which capabilities are most effective. However, some research has been done with mitigation near airports and the recent FAA Reauthorization Act includes provisions for testing, integration and deployment of these technologies.
How important is the role of trade associations – AUVSI, GUTMA – in helping to develop the commercial drone industry nationally and internationally?
Trade associations have an important role in advancing drone policy and regulations and working towards the development of a uniform framework. We are actively working with leading organizations that are advancing drone policy including in leadership roles in AUVSI, Small UAV Coalition, Drone Alliance Europe and CTA. These associations provide a venue for companies to work together to champion meaningful change for the industry at large.
What are the reasons for the decision to downsize and where will you be as a company in three years’ time?
We are more than happy to comment as this is a common result of multiple acquisitions where a company is simply making adjustments to bring new employees on board and align resources to high growth industries and projects.
On 5 September we announced the acquisition of both HAZON Solutions and InspecTools – two companies in the drone energy space. With this increased focus in the energy space, and PrecisionHawk’s success in other industries such as agriculture, infrastructure, government and others – we are re-organizing our company and making sure our resources are aligned in these key markets. Just this week we also announced that we acquired UpLift Data Partners, a leading drone company in the construction space.
As with any acquisition and re-organization, there are some positions that are duplicative across companies or no longer needed resulting in a small number of impacted staff.
PrecisionHawk continues to grow both organically as well as through acquisition – having now completed five acquisitions in the last year. With the teams from the new companies on board we have a similar number of employees on staff, and we think we are better positioned to serve high growth markets than ever before. We are excited about the opportunity ahead.