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FAA Grants First Commercial BVLOS Waiver for a 55+ Pound Drone to GE’s Avitas Systems

BY Zacc Dukowitz
26 October 2018

GE-owned Avitas Systems recently received the first ever waiver issued by the FAA to fly a drone heavier than 55 pounds BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) for commercial purposes.


The company will use the waiver for inspections of well pads and other infrastructure, which support extraction operations being conducted by the Shell Oil Company on terrain that makes inspections using other methods challenging.

Like most companies these days offering drone inspection services, Avitas will not provide just the inspections themselves, but also interpret the data collected, and create outputs that Shell (or other clients) can use to determine where they might need to perform maintenance on equipment.

About the Waiver

Avitas first made their request to the FAA for this first-of-its-kind waiver back in March.

Given the special nature of the request, a seven-month turn around is actually not that bad, and in some ways indicates the commitment the FAA has made to push forward reasonable, well-considered proposals for BVLOS and other Part 107-related exemptions (such as flying over people or at night).

[Want to see all the BVLOS waivers the FAA has granted? Go to this page on the FAA’s website and search “107.31”.]

A key part of obtaining Avitas’ waiver had to do with convincing the FAA that the technology supporting these BVLOS flights could be performed safely.

One part of demonstrating the ability to fly safely is technological. Avitas is using a ground-based sense-and-avoid radar created by DeTect Intelligent Sensors to avoid collisions with other UAS and manned aircraft. The radar will be used along with a high-performance GPS called ADS-B, point-of-view cameras, and advanced flight control systems that come with a “robust autopilot.”

One of the keys is the radar really enables us not to have human spotters on the pathway.

– Brad Tomer, Interim CEO of Avitas

All of these systems were incorporated into the Pulse Aerospace Vapor 55 UAS. It’s interesting to note that the Pulse Aerospace by itself weighs 43 pounds, and therefore would be under the 55-pound restriction. However, with the addition of all the BVLOS-enabling equipment, the Pulse Aerospace’s weight is brought up to over 55 pounds.

The Pulse Aerospace Vapor 55

In addition to providing specifications about the proposed equipment for their BVLOS operations to the FAA in order to get their BVLOS waiver, Avitas also needed to provide extensive evidence that they had done an exhaustive consideration of the relevant safety risks and had plans to address those risks.

[The technology] is] coupled with a strong operations safety case. We’re not going out there asking any other aircraft to yield right-of-way to us.

– Michael Clatworthy, Director of Flight Operations for Avitas

The waiver application also included information about the training that would be provided for the POC (Pilot in Command), the radar operator, and the proposed area of operation.

How the Waiver Will Be Used

For now, Avitas has been granted permission to fly their customized Pulse Aerospace in a 23.5 square mile area in West Texas.

Within that area, Shell has several well sites with a list of 80 points that require inspections a few times a week. Avitas can’t currently inspect all 80 points within the needed time frame at the moment, but their goal is to take on all of those inspections within the near future, and have Shell inspectors doing less and less of the inspections themselves.

These inspections are made to review the general condition of equipment, as well as looking for leaks in Shell’s infrastructure, such as methane and liquid hydrocarbon leaks.

Not too long ago Xcel Energy became the first utility granted a BVLOS waiver for power line inspections in Colorado, and they’ve made statements about seeing the potential for expanding their BVLOS inspections to other states where they operate. Similarly, Avitas sees the potential for the inspection model they’re using in Texas to be used for other scenarios, in other locations.

At the moment, Avitas claims they can save a company 25% off its inspection time using drones flown BVLOS, which is a significant amount of money. Waivers like the one they just secured are yet another step on the path toward making these kinds of inspections common, and continue the trend of bringing commercial drone operations more and more into the mainstream.

What do you think? Are you excited about the progress being made on the BVLOS front, or do you think it’s coming too slowly? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

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