Landmark waiver lets drones fly into fire

With much of the west burning, a first-ever FAA waiver loosens regulations for drones.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

A landmark emergency waiver granted by the FAA has allowed Verizon to deploy industrial drones to inspect their critical infrastructure during the US wildfires, ensuring first responders have reliable communications for disaster response. The drones are made by a company called Percepto, which are currently operating beyond-line-of-sight for this emergency deployment.

The FAA granted Skyward, A Verizon company, a temporary waiver that allows company pilots to fly the Percepto Sparrow drone from their homes to inspect critical communications infrastructure near the Big Hollow wildfire in Washington. The waiver permits operations 24 hours a day, with less than 3 miles of visibility and no pilot or observer on site. This is the first time a Beyond the Visual Line Of Sight waiver has been granted that allows pilots to control the drone from home. 

The Sparrow drone platform is already able to land in high winds and in snow. Percepto recently incorporated a first-of-its-kind integral parachute into the Sparrow.

"At a moment when we are facing dangerous consequences of climate change and coping with a global pandemic, maintaining the Verizon Network has never been more important," said Rima Qureshi, Chief Strategy Officer, Verizon. "Innovations in airborne technology have enhanced our ability to inspect our sites without putting engineers in harm's way, and provide our first responders with reliable communications. We appreciate the FAA's swift action in granting the waiver, which allows us to deploy a network-connected drone and provide critical services, safely and effectively."

Desperate circumstances require desperate measures. Since September 9, the Big Hollow Fire in Washington has burned tens of thousands of acres and caused mandatory evacuation orders in the area. As the air quality was unsafe for humans, it was vital to ensure communication for first responders without putting staff in harm's way.

Percepto, which we've followed at ZDNet, is a leading provider of autonomous drone-in-a-box solutions for monitoring and securing critical infrastructure and industrial sites. It specializes in rugged hardware and AI-based software that provides real-time insights for assessing risk in industrial inspection applications. The company claims the most deployed drone-in-a-box solution in the market.

During a season of apparent doom, with multiple natural disasters occurring throughout the United States, the ability to safely inspect sites that support critical communications for first responders has never been more important or necessary. The waiver was granted through the FAA's expedited Special Governmental Interest process and applies to drone support operations for critical infrastructure that maintain communications for emergency responders.

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