BVLOS is Coming - Are You Ready?
As businesses continue to incorporate UAS into their operations, we need to be aware of the inherent barriers that are likely to arise when bringing BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) flight operations to scale. In this article, I will address the possible barriers that businesses will need to prepare for to unlock the tremendous potential of BVLOS flight operations.
The Part 107 regulation in August of 2016 ushered in a second unmanned aircraft revolution, or at the very last marked the second revolution of the UAS space. Yes, there were many companies (mine included) flying on Part 333 waivers well before Aug '16, but the absolute explosion in commercial drone pilots since then makes my case. This is not to say that the FAA has led us as an industry to the promised land, far from it. More accurately, the timing was right regarding technological advances, societal acceptance, and economic conditions. Very clearly the FAA was moving in the right direction, but if we are, to be honest, the prevailing currents were moving that way quickly too.
Many are moving aggressively in the wake created by the Pathfinder program, and understandably so. We are already beginning to see the impact of drones on the operational side of many businesses. Most organizations are dutifully focused on risk mitigation, safety cases, sense and avoid capabilities, and flight characteristics. However, many overlook a few essential details that are likely to be barriers when bringing operations to production. Below is a list of things that are likely to be barriers to bring BVLOS flight operations to production scale. Crack the code here, and you will ensure a long ride on the next revolution of the UAS industry.
Back to the second revolution stuff. Enabled by the now virtually complete Pathfinder Program, companies like BNSF and PrecisionHawk are well positioned to lead the way where BVLOS is concerned. PrecisionHawk has even introduced a BVLOS consulting offering that looks to help other organizations get into the game.
The third revolution is coming, is your business ready?
Command & Control (C2)
It is all about the C2 – the first question the inexperienced are likely to ask about any given UAS is, "How long can it fly?" Folks with some experience in the space tend to focus more on the sensor package of an aircraft. No doubt both are important, but the linkage between the ground control station and the aircraft – known as command and control (C2) – overwhelmingly trumps the first. Within our industry, we have hardware builders that focus solely on transitional vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), and these manufacturers are habitually breaking flight endurance records. With flight times measured in double-digit hours, how long is far less important than how far; the bottleneck for distance is C2. How far can your radio reach and still sustain your proscribed risk mitigation strategies?
We have been living in an era where daily flight times are quite low, even for a very high-volume operation. Wear and tear on airframes is quite minimal. That will be changing directly. In a BVLOS context, aircraft are going to stack up flight time far more rapidly. UAS operations will be forced to look at crew rest in a new way providing multiple pilots for individual flights as those times stretch well past the limits of pilot fatigue. A premium must be placed on aircraft production quality. How many drone-based solutions have you seen that looked great on paper and in ideal conditions but failed to prove their worth in the real world production quality. It was production quality that forced our operation to retire our S-1000 fleet early; we just couldn't keep tearing apart arms to replace tiny rubber dampeners, the lost time was too much to bear. It is high production quality that will minimize maintenance downtime and maximize return on investment. It is not enough for a UAS to demonstrate a single 10-hour flight out to 50 miles and back. To build a business, the same UAS must repeat that feat, daily.
So you go out and get your BVLOS waiver. You square away your C2 plan, and you have sourced the best possible hardware solution. Stand by for a data problem. You are about to start generating a literal flood of data. What's your plan? What's your back up plan? How are you processing and delivering your data to the end-user? Tough questions. The good news is there are more than a few companies working to help you solve the problem.
A few recommendations:
- Be laser focused on your end-users’ What do are they asking for? What are they paying you for? What do they need to be more efficient at their job? Use those questions to help you pick a data analytics provider.
- Back up your data, back it up early, back it up often.
- Don't try to change the way your customers do business, integrate with their current operations instead. Accommodating how they handle data already will ensure that you are not asking them to change a business process which could be an emotional event.
- Don't make assumptions about how you are going to get data out of the field. I do not care what they say; hotel WiFi will not support gigabytes of data transfer - I am looking at you Holiday Inn. Telling your crews to just upload the data to your cloud at the end of flight ops for the day is a recipe for tired, angry, frustrated pilots.
To squeeze the full benefit out of BVLOS flight operations, you are going to need to move around a lot, plain and simple. The US military has been employing small UAS for years from semi-prepared sites with the luxury of massive, towable, launch and recovery equipment and cumbersome directional antennas. That is not going to work for most UAS operators. When picking a hardware solution take a critical look at setup and teardown time. Minimize your infrastructure requirement to the max extent possible so you can maximize your flight time and therefore your flight coverage and data generation.
The scene is set for hundreds of industries to be revolutionized by the advancement of drone technology, and it is easy to see why. The progress of this industry provides a means to perform everyday jobs faster, safer, and less expensive. The commercial sector has the most significant potential for long-term growth. Without proper planning and preparation, your organization will miss the window to get ahead of the game and remain competitive in your market. The UAS business is deceptively hard to scale well. While BVLOS operations will undoubtedly provide ample opportunities across many industries, it will also present new challenges as well. The time is now to prepare for the third revolution.