FAA regulations still require drone operators to fly drones within line of sight. This can be a limiting factor for companies that have a need to survey broad swatches of areas; however, there is now a mobile strategy that can overcome the restriction.
It is a combination of drones that work in concert with a physical trailer and a mobile command center that can quickly be transported and erected in a remote locale. The trailer-command center, because it can be located proximate to the area being surveyed, extends the reach of drone flight and data collection.
“We specifically designed for beyond the line of sight drone operations,” says J.B. Bernstein of AviSight, a drone inspection company. “The business concept was to extend the reach of drone flights and the collection of data, which we could do if we stationed mobile command centers near the actual sites of drone operations and data collection.”
The concept of a mobile command center combined with a physical trailer that has mobile command hardware and software was a collaboration between AviSight, which supplied the drone operations technology, and Xtreme Cubes Corporation, which produced the physical trailers. The result was the C3UBE command center, installed in a trailer, and if need be, transported in a shipping container.
The C3UBE contains a desk and computer monitors for two pilots. It also houses data equipment and has generator storage. A redundant communications infrastructure includes data transport and streaming capabilities over satellite, microwave or cellular.
Likely, use cases will grow as the concept catches on, but for now, the most immediate deployment opportunities are in military and utility operations.
“The physical structures that are used to house the command center have already been hardened for rigorous battle and environmental conditions,” says Brian Main, CEO of Xtreme Cubes. “One of the cubes had been deployed in the line of fire. It sustained a blast right outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. The structure withstood the hit.”
The oil and gas, power, and telecommunications industries also have forayed into remote command center technology since all of them have the need to continuously monitor and check assets in remote locations.
“I know of one case in Nevada where the power company had the need to inspect a 50-mile long stretch of power line,” Bernstein says. “The company was doing this by using a helicopter. Now it can be done by strategically placing command cubes in outlying areas.”
For field workers, the change in approach not only saves time and effort, but also lives. “Annually in the U.S., approximately 300 people die in inspection related injuries,” Bernstein says.
For companies interested in moving to mobile command centers for drone operations, here are several best practices:
#1: Revise your IT plan
If you're going to collect data locally and do some processing before you send it to a final central destination, your IT staff should evaluate how IT infrastructure and operations need be altered to accommodate the new business process. Individuals at the remote site will need to know how to handle the IT, data processing and preparation that occurs there. At the same time, security of hardware, software and the physical site itself should be installed.
The other aspect is timing of data transfers and ensuring that you have the communications bandwidth through which data can be passed. The policy might be to send in all remotely gathered data to headquarters at end of day in a batch, for example. In all cases, data transfers need to be worked out between remote sites and headquarters — as well as data preparation and processing operations.
#2: Don't skimp on training
“You can’t just start up a remote drone operation without planning and training your personnel for it,” Bernstein says. “First, your drone pilots must be licensed through the FAA. Next, you need to have skilled personnel in command center operations.”
#3: Consider outsourcing where warranted
In some cases, companies don't have skilled staff on board to operate drone command centers. In these cases, an option is outsourcing to an expert in the field. This can alleviate time, money and stress.