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FAA Grants NCDOT Statewide BVLOS Waiver for Bridge Inspections with Skydio Drones

BY Zacc Dukowitz
14 October 2020

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) recently received a blanket BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) waiver to fly Skydio drones for bridge inspections anywhere in the state.

Good for four years—an eon in the fast-moving drone industry—the new waiver allows the NCDOT to conduct BVLOS missions without the use of a visual observer.

The waiver does have some restrictions, which include that the drone pilot must:

  • Ensure there aren’t any people on the bridge while inspecting it
  • Fly within 50 feet of the bridge
  • Fly within 1,500 feet of the pilot

nc-dot-skydio-bvlos-waiver
Image credit: Skydio

View the full waiver here.

The First “True BVLOS” Waiver

In a blog post announcing the NCDOT waiver, Skydio’s Brendan Groves explains that this is the first “true BVLOS” waiver granted by the FAA.

According to Groves, all prior BVLOS waivers have required the use of a visual observer and many have required expensive external technology, such as radar, to help detect and avoid manned aircraft in the area.

But NCDOT’s waiver allows it to use only the Skydio drone to conduct bridge inspections, with no additional observer or technology required.

This kind of permission was made possible due to the sophisticated autonomous capabilities of Skydio drones, which allow them to reliably avoid collisions even when flying close to objects for inspection purposes.

Skydio and Commercial Drone Work

Originally pigeon-holed as a selfie-drone, commercial adoption of Skydio’s autonomous drones has grown significantly this year.

Over the summer, Skydio simultaneously announced a $100 million Series C fundraising round and launched its X2 line of drones made just for commercial applications.

Introducing Skydio X2™

Adding to these successes, when the Pentagon released its list of five government-approved drones in August, Skydio’s X2-D was on the list.

Inclusion in this group of “blue UAS” (DOD-approved drones that can be used by federal agencies) may be decisive for Skydio and the other approved companies when it comes to winning not only government contracts but also work for U.S.-based commercial companies who may prefer to stick with what the government has deemed safe for use.

In addition to inspection work, Skydio’s drones are commonly being used in public safety, where they can quickly provide aerial insights for rapidly developing situations.

This year the company’s work with the Chula Vista Police Department helped secure a BVLOS waiver for emergency situations, with the limitations that the drone couldn’t fly higher than 50 feet above the nearest obstacle or 1,500 feet from the pilot (similar to the NCDOT waiver). The Chula Vista waiver provided the model for the FAA’s new Tactical BVLOS waiver for public safety agencies, which gives first responders temporary permission to fly BVLOS during extreme emergency situations  such as wildfires or to find a missing person.

How Drones Support Bridge Inspections

The value drones present in almost any commercial scenario is fairly straightforward—they collect data remotely.

In inspections, the value of remote data collection can be incredibly significant, both in terms of improving safety and for overall savings. To put this in perspective, in a single oil cargo tank inspection conducted earlier this year Flyability’s Elios 2 helped an oil tank manager save $2 million.

Bridge inspections also present a highly valuable use case for drones, because the alternative approach requires inspectors to rappel down in order to see the underside side of a bridge, or to use a snooper truck (shown below).

snooper-truck-skydio
Image credit: Skydio

Using a drone, inspectors can collect visual data about every part of the bridge without having to put themselves in harm’s way. Drones also help make bridge inspections much less expensive, since manual inspections typically require extra equipment, extra liability insurance, and extra personnel working for longer hours.

Skydio 2 for Bridge Inspection

Highway bridges need to be inspected every 24 months according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and other types of bridges must be inspected regularly as well.

A 2019 study conducted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) found that drones could reduce the cost of bridge inspections by 75%, bringing down the cost for each inspection by $14,600.

Doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math, using drones to inspect each bridge in the state could mean a savings of almost $200 million every two years for the state ($14,600 * 13,500 = $197M).

Of course, the adoption of new technology moves slowly, and we can’t expect anything like statewide bridge inspections by drone in North Carolina any time soon. But it will be interesting to see what the overall savings amounts to after the first year of its new waiver—whatever it is, it’s sure to pay for the Skydio drones being used many times over.

Know of another inspection scenario where drones create a big value? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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