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Hey drone industry: Quit griping, it's time to work with the FAA

The next couple of years of rulemaking will impact the drone sector potentially for generations. It's a good time for developers to get collaborative.
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Written by Greg Nichols, Contributor on
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American Robotics Scout drone ready for deployment.

American Robotics

The commercial drone industry is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 57% from 2021 to 2028 as a result of the need for better data and analytics that only drones provide. In order for drones to reach their full potential, drone developers must work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to manufacture devices that can safely and successfully operate under Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) and FAA guidelines. 

That's the clarion call of American Robotics, the first company approved by the FAA to operate automated drones without humans on-site, which was recently selected to participate on the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to advance BLOVS drone operations. In the eyes of co-founder and CEO Reese Mozer, the FAA's approach to BLOVS flight for commercial drones will dictate the state of the drone industry for years to come, and it's up to the industry to do all it can to work in lockstep with the regulator. 

I sat down with Mozer about why the drone sector needs to work with the FAA and what that means for the future of drone delivery and other BVLOS applications.

GN: What's the FAA's current policy on BVLOS, and what are the FAA's primary concerns when it comes to BVLOS?

Reese Mozer: The FAA's mission and responsibility is the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS), including people and property in both the skies and on the ground. Prior to American Robotics 2021 waiver and exemption, no company had demonstrated to the FAA safe operation without human visual observers (VOs) on-site. The reasons for this are numerous and complex and are both technological and cultural. The short explanation is that humans have been a constant presence during flight for the past hundred years, and ultimately, the primary failsafe if anything goes wrong. Shifting more of this responsibility to software and hardware required a series of technology innovations to be developed, tested, and adequately communicated to regulators at the FAA.

For the past five years, American Robotics has been developing a suite of proprietary technologies explicitly designed to produce the industry-leading solution for safe automated flight. We designed these technologies in concert with a low-risk Concept of Operations (CONOPS) and conducted extensive testing and evaluation as part of a long-term regulatory strategy to prove our system's safety. 

For example, the Scout System incorporates multiple novel risk mitigations, including proprietary detect-and-avoid (DAA) sensors and algorithms, advanced automated system diagnostics and failsafes, automated pre-flight checks, and automated flight path management. If anything were to deviate from the expected, safe operation plan, our drone systems take immediate action to correct, such as altering flight course and returning to the base station. By developing a layered, redundant system of safety that includes these proprietary technical and operational risk mitigations, we have proven that its drone-based aerial intelligence platform operates safely in the NAS, even when it conducts flights beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) of both the operator as well as any humans on-site.

GN: How do you hope the rulemaking will change through the BVLOS ARC?

Reese Mozer: Our hope is that the recommendations from the BVLOS ARC will encourage the FAA to more expeditiously authorize expanded BVLOS operations on a national scale, allowing industry to meet the significant demand for automated drone-based inspection. American Robotics and others in the industry have successfully demonstrated that drones can be operated to a very high threshold of safety in the national airspace and can perform missions that are vital to society without endangering other users of the airspace or the general public. Existing regulatory pathways such as waivers and exemptions typically lack the efficiency and speed desired by industry and are often cost-prohibitive for many smaller companies to obtain. Similarly, existing Type Certification (TC) processes were designed to ensure the safety of manned aircraft operations, and applying the existing processes to drones is generally not effective due to the many sizes, technology, and risk differences between drones and manned aircraft. Within the BVLOS ARC, the drone industry has proposed streamlined means of certifying drone technology and assessing the real-world risks that BVLOS operations of drones pose. New rulemaking based on these proposals would enable expanded BVLOS operations in a safe and scalable manner while ensuring the safety of all operators within the NAS. It should be noted; however, the FAA's stated timeline for implementing such rulemaking is 3-5 years. Thus, the existing path of waivers and exemptions taken by American Robotics is likely to persist until then.

GN: Why will BVLOS take drones to a new dimension? Why is this such a critical milestone?

Reese Mozer: "True" BVLOS, i.e. that where neither pilot nor visual observers (VO) are required, is critical to unlocking the full potential of the commercial drone market. The economics behind paying for a VO or pilot on the ground to continuously monitor a drone flight simply does not make sense and have significantly hampered commercial users' ability to justify building out a drone program. It's important to remember that flying a drone once or twice a year has little to no value for the vast majority of commercial use cases. Typically, to see the benefits of drone-based data collection, flights need to be conducted multiple times per day, everyday, indefinitely. This frequency allows drones to cover enough area, survey at the proper resolution, and detect problems when they occur. Today, the average hourly rate of hiring a drone pilot in the U.S. is about $150 and can get as high as $500/hour. Thus, overcoming the human costs associated with commercial drone use has been one of the biggest hindrances to the market and has impacted the viability and implementation of this technology on a mass scale. 

American Robotics' leadership in expanding automated BVLOS operations represents a critical inflection point in the aviation, drone, and data worlds. As the first company to become approved by the FAA to operate in this manner, we have set the stage for the next generation of commercial drones. Autonomous operations enable the real-time digitization of physical assets and allow users in industrial markets to transform their monitoring, inspection, and maintenance operations. This technology represents the key to a new generation of industrial data that will bring about increased cost-efficiency, operational safety, and environmental sustainability. 

GN: What sectors are automated BVLOS particularly important to? Can you give some examples of how those sectors plan to use BVLOS?

Reese Mozer: Automated operations, which are enabled by "true" BVLOS authorization, are required for 90% of the commercial drone market. An easy way to think about it is any use case that requires frequent inspection over the same area likely requires automated BVLOS to be practical. Example sectors include Oil & Gas, Bulk Materials & Mining, Rail, and Agriculture. Each has significant demands in terms of image resolution and frequency that can only be provided by automated BVLOS flight.

Oil & Gas

There are over 900,000 well pads and 500,000 miles of pipeline in the United States. Every inch of those assets needs to be continually monitored for defects and leaks to assure safety and reduce GHG emissions properly. Automated BVLOS operation is critical to enabling drones to perform these tasks on a regular basis properly. 

Stockpiles & Mining

Current stockpile and mining inspections involve teams that manually estimate volumetrics, either with hand-held cameras or the naked eye, typically resulting in low-accuracy data. These incorrect measurements put a strain on operations and drastically reduced our visibility and control over the bulk materials supply chain. With automated BVLOS, we can generate a hyper-accurate volumetric analysis of stockpiles and mines every day, reducing the likelihood of global supply chain disruptions across a variety of industries.

Rail

Over 140,000 miles of rail track in the United States require regular monitoring and inspection to assure safety. Common track defects include tie skew, tie clearance, and track impediments. Automated BVLOS allows for the scalable implementation of drones across the nation's rail infrastructure, helping to reduce the odds of a train derailment and increasing the uptime of train systems. 

Agriculture 

To sustain the growing population, the world needs to produce 70% more food by 2050. At the same time, the average age of a farmer in the United States is 59 and growing, with fewer new entrants to the agricultural labor force each year. The result of these socio-economic factors is a requirement of increased technology and automation on the farm. There are over 900 million acres of farmland in the United States, and automated BVLOS operation is the only scalable way to monitor these acres by drone routinely.

GN: Have developers been eager or reticent to work with the FAA? What should manufacturers be doing to help pave the way?

Reese Mozer: The relationship between industry and the FAA has been evolving for the past 10 years. Early on, each party was very foreign to the other, with the drone industry being born from Silicon Valley-esque hacker roots and the FAA acting as the 100-year arbiter of manned flight. As a result, many developers either weren't eager or didn't understand how to work with the FAA in the early years of the drone industry. Recently, there have been significant and promising changes, but some still persist in that hesitant or unfamiliar mindset. I think an important fact for manufacturers to remember is that the FAA's job is not to innovate, and it never will be. Their responsibility is to evaluate aviation technologies to assure the safety of the national airspace. If the industry wants to do something new, it is on our shoulders to develop, test, and prove that technology to our regulators.  

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