The remarkable growth of the unmanned aerial vehicle/drone industry is making people feel like they had better join in or be left behind. Advertisements are full of promises of lower costs and convenience, daily revisits and real-time imagery. Initial results indicate that drones are valuable tools, particularly in unsafe or difficult-to-access locations. Unlike manned aerial collection, UAVs can also be quickly mobilized without filing a flight plan, and the hardware investment is a fraction of the cost of an airplane or helicopter. However, drones are not the panacea for every situation, and until drones are allowed to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), the full extent of their advantages cannot be realized.

Does Your Business Need a Drone?

The use of drones has potential for improving safety and efficiency in diverse areas, such as precision agriculture, environmental monitoring, infrastructure inspections, oil and gas exploration, and utility corridor mapping. The array of light-weight sensors being developed for drones deliver the necessary level of detail and accuracy for many applications. But new technology shouldn’t be adopted just because it’s different; it should deliver value.

Colorado-based Juniper Unmanned has worked with drones since 2014 and plays an active industry role in developing best business practices and teaching others how to maximize the benefits of operating drones safely. When Juniper Unmanned advises a business about developing a drone-based asset management program, the following questions are considered: Will drone technology 

  1. increase the number of projects that can be completed, 
  2. increase the area collected in each engagement, 
  3. increase the margin for each project, 
  4. allow the crew to work more efficiently, and 
  5. increase the speed of data acquisition? 

The return on investment is directly linked to whether a drone can complete the necessary work better and faster, as compared to existing processes.

Depending on the use case, drones are an excellent choice for collecting high-quality remotely sensed data; however, current operating regulations in the U.S. require the operator to keep the drone in sight. This makes drones less efficient for collecting large areas because the operator must stop flying and move to new locations, which takes time. From a safety standpoint, there is reduced risk of human injury without a pilot in the plane, but there are still concerns about damage to people and property on the ground if a drone crashes.

“Drone technology is exciting but only useful if it helps us accomplish something that we couldn’t do before or is more effective or efficient than what we already had,” says Jeff Cozart, chief executive officer, Juniper Unmanned. “Combining the low cost and efficiency of drones with analytical artificial intelligence yields impressive results, but not every situation is best handled with a drone. We focus on identifying the best ways to collect the necessary data and apply analytics to generate useful information that supports more effective workflows.”

BVLOS Changes the Economics

Uninterrupted drone-based data collection over large areas is limited by BVLOS restrictions and by the requirement to deploy personnel to each project location. The cost to operate a drone is about the same for every square mile, whether collecting 1 or 100. On the other hand, manned airplanes are much more expensive than drones to fly over a small area, but the cost per square mile decreases when averaged over a large area of interest. Flying BVLOS is in demand to allow drone operators to take advantage of these same economies of scale.

“BVLOS would change the economics of drone flight over large areas,” says Cozart. “We’d be replacing satellite and manned plane technology with drones that can obtain higher resolution data at a greater temporal frequency.”

With BVLOS, drones excel at applications such as utility inspections, where they fly long distances collecting imagery to evaluate the condition of power poles. Several advantages over airplanes include flying at a lower altitude, collecting data at a higher resolution, and gathering small details about the infrastructure, down to the level of a missing cotter pin. Artificial intelligence applied to drone imagery automatically identifies conditions that need to be addressed.

Safety is Primary Concern

The U.S. has the most complex airspace anywhere in the world, with a regulatory environment to match. Rapid innovation has advanced drone capabilities beyond what is legally allowed in actual practice, resulting in complaints that the U.S. industry is being held back. Although safety is the primary concern, other considerations like privacy, preservation of historic sites, protection of wildlife, etc., are also impacting the evolving policies.

“Rules regarding drones in the U.S. are being developed with a very careful and incremental approach,” says Cozart. “The FAA is justified because the agency is responsible for users of airspace not introducing risk to others. The bottom line is if there is a crash, they want it to be unlikely to injure someone on the ground.”

Technologists have different approaches to overcoming the safety issues. Detect and avoid (DAA) technology is a critical piece of operating safely in populated areas. In general, the goal is to keep the drone from coming into contact with anything else. Most existing DAA technology allows a drone to change its own flight plan to go around an obstacle or hover in place to avoid hitting something. 

Dependable communication and datalinks to the aircraft are areas of concern — losing contact can result in the drone coming down unexpectedly. Some solutions involve failsafes, such as parachutes that lower drones slowly to the ground. Testing is ongoing to ensure reliability of these techniques.

“Regardless of line-of-sight regulations, to maintain safety the operator always needs positive control,” states Cozart. “In addition, BVLOS technology could require more airworthiness oversight. Currently there are no airworthiness inspections on the drone itself, and it is the responsibility of the operator to certify its ability to fly. The public expects a higher level of safety regarding airspace that doesn’t rely on self-regulation by individuals.”

Assurance of airworthiness would help alleviate some of the safety concerns about BVLOS, along with the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) program for low-altitude airspace flights that is currently being developed by the FAA. Although the industry is eager to explore the many opportunities that BVLOS will offer, integration of drones into the national airspace is going to be a slow process.