Austria approves drone flights to identify hazards on ‘critical transport infrastructure’

Austrian air navigation service provider Austro Control is working with state-owned motorway company ASFINAG to use drones for situational awareness on Austrian motoroways.

The first flight took place on 25 May 2023, carried out by ASFINAG partner Dronetech (a company of Immotech OP GmbH). The aircraft with a wingspan of three meters took off from the Ried im Innkreis motorway maintenance facility, covered a distance of ten kilometers at a height of around 100 meters along the A 8 Innkreis motorway and landed safely again.

Austro Control approved the flight after a necessary and very comprehensive special SORA risk analysis for flights out of sight. SORA is the abbreviation for Specific Operational Risk Assessment and a Europe-wide procedure for risk analysis for the use of unmanned aerial systems. Risk management serves to identify and contain hazards with regard to people, air traffic and the “critical infrastructure” in the vicinity of the motorway. This involves, for example, the maintenance of the drone, coordinated flight corridors, predefined emergency landing sites,

This has ensured that the flight follows the highway as a high-level road infrastructure in accordance with legal regulations and safety requirements. In the course of preparing the application, various simulations were also carried out and all framework conditions were collected and defined with the emergency organizations and Austro Control. The Autobahnmeisterei Ried was selected because on the one hand there is heavy and challenging traffic volume, but the area along the flight zone is hardly developed – another preventive safety measure.

The aim is for drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – equipped with high-performance cameras and complex sensors – to transmit a picture of the situation on motorways to ASFINAG in the future, for the purpose of rapid information acquisition and to support so-called event management in the event of accidents, traffic jams, natural phenomena or other traffic obstructions.

ASFINAG has been using drones for many years: for the creation of renovation concepts, for building inspections in hard-to-reach places or for high-resolution images when measuring and documenting. What is completely new, however, is that a drone of this class flies outside the pilot’s visual range (“BVLOS”, beyond visual line of sight) and is now controlled from a motorway maintenance depot, later directly from one of the nine ASFINAG traffic management centers. In terms of traffic safety, this flight premiere was preceded by intensive coordination between ASFINAG and Austro Control in order to obtain the necessary permits for take-off.

The background of the innovation project: A faster picture of the situation using drones or UAS enables ASFINAG and the emergency organizations to react more quickly, target traffic control and traffic information and thus brings more safety.

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