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FAA’s BEYOND Program Emphasizes Focus on BVLOS with 8 New Partners in North Dakota

BY Zacc Dukowitz
1 February 2021

The FAA’s new BEYOND program recently added eight new partners, all of which will work with the program’s ongoing site in North Dakota.

xcel-energy-bvlos
New BEYOND partner Xcel Energy conducting a solar farm inspection by drone

The North Dakota site is led by the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS), and its focus is on building the first statewide BVLOS network.

This focus dovetails perfectly with the focus of the BEYOND program, whose primary objective is to enable Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) in the U.S.—in fact, that’s where the BEYOND in the program’s title seems to originate.

Here are the eight new BEYOND program partners:

  • Airspace Link. An FAA-approved UAS Service Supplier of Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), focused on meeting the needs of state and local governments and ensuring UAS pilots can make informed decisions.
  • Equinor. An energy company developing oil, gas, wind, and solar energy in more than 30 countries, including a strong presence in North Dakota.
  • iSight Drone Services. The first private UAS company in North Dakota, providing professional UAS operations, setting the bar on scalable and mature operations management.
  • Skydio. U.S. manufacturer of autonomous, small UAS that use Artificial Intelligence to see and understand their surroundings and intelligently navigate complex environments for industrial inspections and public safety;
  • SkySkopes. A professional drone service provider based in North Dakota that is focused on bringing innovative solutions to the energy sector;
  • Volansi. A commercial manufacturer and operator of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) autonomous flight systems that are focused on airworthiness and certification;
  • Workhorse. An autonomous solutions provider supporting airworthiness, certification, and operations support, primarily for package delivery;
  • Xcel Energy. A leading organization using autonomous technologies in support of energy technologies and energy delivery.

New Partners Have Deep BVLOS Experience

Three of these new BEYOND partners have deep experience with BVLOS, and two of them—Skydio and Xcel Energy—have already scored major wins when it comes to securing BVLOS waivers.

Skydio

In October of last year, Skydio announced that the North Carolina Department of Transportation had received a statewide waiver to conduct bridge inspections BVLOS with Skydio’s autonomous X2 drones.

At the time, the company touted this new approval for the NCDOT as the first “true BVLOS” waiver the FAA had ever granted, stating that all prior BVLOS waivers had required the use of a visual observer (VO) and/or expensive external technology, such as radar, to help detect and avoid manned aircraft in the area.

Skydio 2 for Bridge Inspection

Xcel Energy

Xcel Energy has also secured some key BVLOS approvals over the last few years.

In 2018, the company was the first utility to receive FAA approval to fly BVLOS for its work in power generation. It began regular BVLOS operations later that same year, using this new operational ability to inspect power lines and other key infrastructure.

In 2019, both Xcel Energy and the North Dakota Integration Pilot Program (IPP) secured waivers to conduct BVLOS operations in the state without a VO present.

Xcel Energy Uses Drones

Volansi

Volansi is another big name in BVLOS technology, although to our knowledge it hasn’t yet secured any BVLOS waivers. The company recently raised $50 million in a Series B to continue developing its autonomous VTOL cargo drones for BVLOS drone delivery.

The North Dakota BEYOND site has already partnered with Volansi for Site Acceptance Testing and use-case development in building its statewide BVLOS network, and we’re sure to hear more about its progress on the BVLOS front before too long.

Autonomous Drone Delivery by Volans-i

About the BEYOND Program and the North Dakota Site

The FAA’s BEYOND program is a continuation of the UAS IPP, a program originally created to test various types of drone operations that were prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules.

faa-beyond-program-2020

The IPP officially ended on October 25 last year and the BEYOND program began the next day.

The BEYOND program’s original partners are all former IPP programs, with just one IPP program falling off during the transition. (The one program that left was San Diego’s IPP, which included the Chula Vista Police Department.)

[Related reading: Chula Vista PD Use Drone to Capture Shooting Suspect]

A primary difference between the IPP and the BEYOND program is a narrowing of focus to work specifically on testing to enable BVLOS operations in the U.S.

With the FAA’s new rules allowing nighttime operations and flying over people, BVLOS is the last type of operation prohibited by the Part 107 rules that the IPP originally set out to test.

[The BEYOND program] has a particular focus on operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator that are repeatable, scalable, and economically viable. These efforts will be bolstered by Vantis, North Dakota’s UAS Network, which is designed to enable real-world BVLOS flights without extreme barriers to entry.

ND DoT press release

The North Dakota BEYOND site was previously an IPP partner, and it has been working to build a statewide BVLOS network for some time now.

Early last year, the state announced that it was investing $33 million in UAS infrastructure to help build the network. In September, it announced that it was starting to test the network, signaling a significant step forward in its development.

Once completed, it’s anticipated that the North Dakota network will provide a model for how similar BVLOS networks can be rolled out in large areas throughout the U.S.—and throughout the world.

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