Inside BVLOS, the Drone Industry’s Next Game-Changer

BY Alan Perlman
16 February 2017

BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) flights represent a huge area of opportunity for the drone industry.

BVLOS refers to drone flights performed beyond the pilot’s line of sight (as opposed to Visual Line of Sight, or VLOS flights, which are performed within the pilot’s line of sight). Using First Person View (FPV) and other approaches, BVLOS is hypothetically possible right now with the technology available, but in most countries it’s either not allowed at all or highly restricted.

If and when BVLOS is allowed on a wide scale, we can anticipate a corresponding boom (that’s right—a further boom in addition to the current explosion of applications and growth we’re seeing in the drone industry). This is why BVLOS is top of mind for most everyone in the industry, and why we’ve been seeing so much reporting on the topic from all over the world.

As most everyone knows, the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations (or Part 107) don’t allow for BVLOS operations (along with flying at night, above 400 feet, or over people). But that doesn’t mean BVLOS will never be permitted, simply that the FAA wanted to proceed with some caution when it released its newest regulations for commercial drone operators back in August 2016.

In this article we’ll take a close look at the applications that require BVLOS, the current BVLOS regulations in place in a number of countries, and the approvals that are starting to crop up, both internationally and in the U.S., to allow for BVLOS flights.

Commercial and Government/Public Applications

Almost any commercial drone application could conceivably benefit from BVLOS, but some are almost impossible to execute effectively without it.

“There are still many restrictions in place for [the] commercial use of UAS, even for VLOS. Having said that, inspection applications in areas such as bridges, roofs, cell towers, buildings, and real estate can be accomplished much easier, safer, and cheaper with a UAS operating VLOS.”

– Tony Albanese, President of Gryphon Sensors

But what are those applications that require BVLOS to be done well and efficiently?

Here’s a list:

Commercial Applications

  • Package Delivery
  • Railroad Inspections
  • Pipeline inspections (oil, but also natural gas and other types of long pipelines that stretch over great distances)
  • Powerline Inspections
  • Windmill Inspections
  • Agriculture (crop and soil inspection over great distances)
  • Mapping

Government/Public Applications

  • Search & Rescue
  • Firefighting
  • Police work
  • Conservation management
  • Border patrol

It’s no surprise that every single one of these applications requires a great distance to be covered for useful, actionable knowledge to be gathered.

Under current U.S. regulations, all of these applications are encumbered by the physical location of the pilot. And while it’s still faster to use a drone within the small area that VLOS allows (versus simply walking around to do your inspection or other work), or to work with a partner to extend that range, it’s readily apparent how being able to fly beyond what you can see would make the flight much, much more valuable.

Another consideration, in addition to large distances, is that there are areas where dense tree cover or mountains and other topographical variation make it impossible to see very far.

These challenges presented by the landscape would probably apply in the most desperate scenarios, such as Search & Rescue and Firefighting, where information might be urgently needed to find a lost person before they die of hypothermia, or to locate victims during a forest fire. You could also imagine a manhunt for an armed criminal that would require BVLOS to find out where someone is, especially if it’s believed that he’s hiding nearby and might pose an imminent threat.

BVLOS Regulations & Approvals

Below is a list of 13 countries and their existing BVLOS regulations, as well as the approvals they’ve made for BVLOS flights. (Hint: The U.S. is all the way at the bottom, so just click here if you want to hop down.)

Australia

Regulations

  • Allowed with prior approval

“The operation of any type of UAS in Australia usually requires that the operator maintain a VLOS unless prior approval is granted.”

U.S. Library of Congress Comparative Analysis

Approvals and Related News

Although BVLOS isn’t generally allowed, the Association of Certified UAV Operators (ACUO) in Australia is calling for the creation of a continent-wide Unmanned Traffic Management system (UTM).

“The proposed UTM system would facilitate transparent and harmonised integration of all forms of RPAS into Australian skies, resolving already significant and growing safety problems posed by unsafe and non-compliant operators.”

The creation of a system like this would, by definition, allow for BVLOS flights, and also make Australia one of the most drone-friendly places to operate in the entire world. In addition, it could push Australia to the front of the drone industry by opening up new applications, testing, and fast-tracking drone-related advances that may be slower to come in other countries.

Canada

Regulations

  • Allowed with prior approval

“For BVLOS operations . . . specific weather requirements . . . are determined on a case-by-case basis. The minimum meteorological conditions must be suitable to allow the safe departure and arrival of the aircraft.”

– Transport Canada

Approvals and Related News

UPDATED: On February 24, 2017 Transport Canada issued their very first BVLOS permission to Ventus Geospatial. The press release announcing the news stated that the test flight will be conducted at the Foremost Centre for Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) test range in Foremost Alberta.

Commercial operators can apply for permission to conduct BVLOS flights on a mission-by-mission basis. So far Ventus Geospatial is the first to have been given permission.

One such denial published by commercial UAV operator AeroVision Canada quoted Transport Canada as stating that (among a list of other reasons):

The way ahead for BVLOS operations will include a need for UAV operators to conduct modeling and simulation tests and/or conduct BVLOS testing and evaluation under an SFOC at the UAV “test ranges” (e.g. restricted airspace) being developed at Foremost, AB, and Alma, QC. In other words, the UAV operator will need to have demonstrated their sense and avoid capability at one of the test sites before being considered for a BVLOS commercial operations.

This makes it seem like each individual operator may need to first conduct their own testing to demonstrate their ability to fly BVLOS operators safely before giving permission. And even then, there is not guarantee that permission will be granted, since there isn’t yet a precedent of an operator having been given permission following such testing.

News came out just last month that Transport Canada approved a new testing site for Drone Delivery Canada, where BVLOS flights will be the main subject for tests, so things could be accelerating for some companies (though we still wouldn’t hold our breath).

https://youtu.be/Sb3TQhaUasw

China

Regulations

  • Allowed with restrictions

“The flight specifications are separate for the operation of UAS beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and within visual line of sight (VLOS). UAS flying within VLOS must be operated in the daytime, and air route priority must be ceded to other aircraft. In the U.S. and France, there are similar rules prohibiting the flights of UAS at night. However, under the Chinese rules, the prohibition only applies to UAS operating within VLOS, and not to UAS operating BVLOS.”

– Hogan Lovells Global Media Watch 

Denmark

Regulations

  • Allowed with prior approval

BVLOS flights may only be performed with prior permission from the Danish Transportation Authority.

Danish Transportation Authority

Approvals and Related News

Denmark was recently in the news for being close to granting drone operator Heliscope and inspection software developer Scopito permission to conduct BVLOS flights, following a series of highly successful tests conducted in collaboration with the government.

If permission is granted, this will be the one of the first instances of a private company being granted a permanent BVLOS license by a government (it would be the very first, but it looks like senseFly just beat them to it in Switzerland).

Germany

Regulations

  • Not currently allowed

“The maintenance of VLOS between the operator and the UAS is generally required in Germany, where UAS cannot weigh more than 25 kilograms and must be kept within VLOS at all times.”

U.S. Library of Congress Comparative Analysis

Japan

Regulations

  • Not currently allowed.

“Japan requires operators of all UAS that weigh over 200 grams to monitor the UAS and its surroundings with their own eyes at all times.”

U.S. Library of Congress Comparative Analysis

New Zealand

Regulations

  • Allowed with a UAV pilot’s certificate

“In New Zealand, UAS may be flown without the need for an operating certificate if they weigh less than 25 kg and do not exceed certain operating limits. The operating limits include a requirement for the operator to maintain unaided VLOS with the aircraft. Flying any aircraft BVLOS requires an operating certificate.”

U.S. Library of Congress Comparative Analysis

Approvals and Related News

On February 27, 2017 New Zealand authorities announced that they have given Transpower, a New Zealand-based aerial inspection company, permission to conduct the first BVLOS flight. Transpower will use the flight to conduct aerial inspections of transmission lines and towers in the Rimutaka mountain ranges.

Poland

Regulations

  • Allowed with a UAV pilot’s certificate

“In Poland a certificate of competency for UAS flight operators can allow for operation in VLOS or BVLOS conditions. If the weight exceeds 25 kg a permit to fly is required and operational restrictions may be applicable (e.g., VLOS only and/or minimum distance from populated areas, people, and property).”

U.S. Library of Congress Comparative Analysis

South Africa

Regulations

  • Allowed with prior approval

“In South Africa a BVLOS operation is permitted only by special approval based on certain requirements, which vary depending on whether the operation is in or outside of a controlled airspace.”

U.S. Library of Congress Comparative Analysis

Sweden

Regulations

  • Not currently allowed (although there may be room for special permissions)

“Swedish rules generally require UAS lighter than 7 kg that do not create more than a specified level of kinetic energy to be flown within visual sight of the operator.”

U.S. Library of Congress Comparative Analysis

Switzerland

Regulations

  • Allowed with prior approval

“The operator of the drone must always maintain a direct visual line of sight to the drone. Interpretation of “direct visual line of sight” between the operator and the drone is strict . . . Special permission for the operation of the drone beyond visual line of sight (BLoS) may only be granted if other users of airspace and third parties on the ground are not endangered. Granting of such authorisation is very restrictive and applicants must meet strict requirements

Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA)

Approvals and Related News

senseFly was just given permanent (as opposed to mission-by-mission) permission to operate BVLOS flights in Switzerland on February 9, 2017.

senseFly’s BVLOS approval has been granted under strict specific conditions. These include the company’s eBee drones being operated at a maximum flight height of 500 feet above ground level (or 1,000 feet over urban areas) and the use of visual observers. These observers must each monitor a section of airspace—with a radius of 2 kilometres—for other aircraft. They must also be able to communicate instantly with the drone’s operator in the case of any potential issues.

“This country-wide, anytime BVLOS authorisation is a first for Switzerland and we are delighted to be working closely with FOCA to pioneer this kind of flexible, extended use. While this permission is valid only for senseFly, it opens the door for our Swiss eBee customers to apply for, and enjoy, similarly flexible flight conditions. This will, in turn, allow them to grow their businesses by taking on larger, more complex projects.”

-Jean-Christophe Zufferey, CEO of senseFly

This is HUGE news for BVLOS flights in general. The more countries that lead the way by granting these permissions, the more likely it is that other countries will follow suit.

United Kingdom

Regulations

  • Not currently allowed

“In the United Kingdom UAS weighing less than 20 kg are required to maintain a direct, unaided, visual contact that is sufficient to monitor the flight path of a small unmanned aircraft in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels, and structures in order to avoid collisions.”

U.S. Library of Congress Comparative Analysis

Approvals and Related News

Although the official regulations in the U.K. don’t allow BVLOS flights, AmazonAir recently completed their first test delivery flight, which required BVLOS. This would lead us to think that not only is the U.K. open to BVLOS testing, but may eventually be open to regulated BVLOS flights in general, if they can be convinced of their safety.

https://youtu.be/vNySOrI2Ny8

United States

Regulations

  • Not currently allowed

“You must keep your drone within sight. Alternatively, if you use First Person View or similar technology, you must have a visual observer always keep your aircraft within unaided sight (for example, no binoculars). However, even if you use a visual observer, you must still keep your unmanned aircraft close enough to be able to see it if something unexpected happens.”

FAA.gov

Approvals and Related News

Although Part 107 currently forbids BVLOS flights, back in May of 2015 the FAA Pathfinder Program’s Focus Area Initiative allowed BNSF Railway to team up with drone manufacturer Insitu to experiment with BVLOS for railroad inspections.

BNSF and Insitu announced successful BVLOS operations a little over a year ago, in January of 2016:

“The exercise demonstrated how, in addition to a railway company’s traditional methods of track monitoring, unmanned aircraft can not only improve inspections, but keep employees out of harm’s way and harsh conditions.”

And it looks like that research is bearing fruit. Just last month FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced at the annual CES conference that the FAA was starting to work on draft regulations to issue rules for BVLOS operations. Two of the main elements that need to converge for this important milestone to be crossed involve new detection and avoidance technology, as well as further testing for safety.

Though there are a variety of tests that need to take place to ensure BVLOS flights are safe and reliable, that testing is already being conducted, and the number of test sites and testing parties continues to grow.

Recently NASA has been conducting BVLOS test flights in Reno, a site has been approved for BVLOS testing in North Dakota, and there are sure to be many more to come in the near future.

New Technology that Could Help Hasten BVLOS Approval

Companies such as Gryphon Sensors and AirMap have been working to create fully functional Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems (the proposal of a continent-wide UTM is mentioned in the Australia section above, fyi). These systems could do a lot to hasten the general arrival of BVLOS approvals in all of the countries listed above.

UTM, or Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management, is the system by which drones safely and efficiently integrate into different national airspace systems. UTM includes things like universal drone registration standards, open identification systems, tamper-proof flight data recorders, accurate and trustworthy 3D mapping data, dynamic weather information, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

– AirMap.com

UTMs are a huge piece of the BVLOS puzzle because they present a way to conduct BVLOS flights safely by allowing all of the drones in a given area to fit into a network (as opposed to the current BVLOS requirement in place for senseFly in Switzerland, for instance, which still requires people on the ground watching the sky for other aircrafts, even if they’re not watching the drone in flight itself).

UTMs present possible solutions to related challenges too, such as easing the operation of UAVs across national borders via shared flight information, as well as making it easier to share information across various sUAS-related platforms.

Currently Switzerland and Denmark are leading the BVLOS pack, with their first permanent permissions to senseFly and Heliscope/Scopito (respectively). In many ways this makes sense, because they both are geographically smaller, and therefore their airspace is potentially easier to regulate.

It will be interesting to see whose next in issuing permanent BVLOS permissions—it could be here in the U.S. for all we know. What we do know is that these changes are coming, and that they are sure to shake up what is already a volatile, churning industry.

Alan Perlman

Founder & CEO

Alan is an FAA-certified drone pilot and founded UAV Coach in 2014 to help connect drone enthusiasts, to provide world-class sUAS industry training courses, and to help push the drone community forward with a focus on safety and commercial opportunities.

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