The Era of BVLOS
When talking about drones, does the word BVLOS jump to mind or does this just sound like gibberish to you? Either way you’ve landed on the right page to learn more about the term because you’ll be seeing it pop up more and more as drone regulations begin to catch up to speed with the drone industry.
Before diving into what beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) entails, it should be made clear that current regulations state that you can only fly an aircraft if its within visual line of sight (VLOS). VLOS goes back to when EU regulations were first set and there were only human-piloted aircrafts, meaning the idea of an aircraft being flown without a pilot was unthinkable. However, this quickly changed when people started to realise that one can get a better view of the aircraft by simply looking at it rather than flying it.
"When flying VLOS, it's accepted that an aircraft doesn't necessarily need a pilot, but when airborne, the aircraft must be clearly seen at all times by the person flying it."
By doing so, the person flying the aircraft is able to monitor its flight path and steer it clear of anything that it may collide with. On average, people say that VLOS can go up to about 500m unless something comes in the way, this can be a building or a balloon - basically anything that could get in the way of the pilot’s sight, then the aircraft becomes BVLOS.
Introducing BVLOS will be the tipping point for endless opportunities within the drone industry. When a person is flying an aircraft BVLOS, it implies that they are unable to maintain direct unaided visual contact when airborne, but uses an alternative method of collision avoidance to ensure that the aircraft is flown safely.
A Paradigm Shift for Drones
When thinking of drones, you might be picturing the small ones that zoom passed like flies - those tend to fly VLOS. These can be used for a couple of applications such as inspection or for photography and film purposes. They must legally fly within a range of 500m and keep a horizontal distance of 50m. However, what we are seeing now is only a drop in the ocean when compared to what’s in store for the drone industry and society as a whole.. But only once BVLOS flights come into play.
Once regulations are lifted, a whole market will suddenly open up with endless possibilities. You may be asking yourselves, what does flying BVLOS imply? Well, seeing as there is no visual line of sight, one cannot get away with only having the pilot on the ground. The ground pilot with visual contact is supported by systems (software and applications) that replace the pilot on board. When something goes wrong, the pilot will have a back-up plan and procedures to follow.
"A remote pilot depends on alternative ways of communicating with the aircraft."
This can be done through large antennas that would need to be placed on top of mountains or high buildings. Alternatively, a satellite or a cellular network can be used. Hence, an aircraft can be equipped with a camera on the nose, which replaces the eyes of the pilot. The video stream can then be sent over the cellular networks with low latency and ensuring that one can see through the eyes of the aircraft at all times.
Ensuring the Drone Stays on Route
The next question that may pop up is how can the safety of pedestrians or pilots be guaranteed? This is the main concern when flying BVLOS because you do not want to be colliding with anything. Unlike a traditional pilot flying inside an aircraft who would see a possible threat in the distance and know when to avoid it, flying drones BVLOS depend on alternative systems. One needs to find ways of mitigating the risks when there is no one on board.
This can be done using a transponder, which is able to interact with other transponders and broadcast one signal to another.
"Avy uses a transponder known as ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast), which is a surveillance technology in which an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation and periodically broadcasts it, enabling it to be tracked."
When there is a possibility of collision, the ground station receives a warning and the remote pilot can manually change the coordinates. However, what happens when an object like a balloon that doesn’t have a transponder, decides to float in front of your drone? Well, we are currently working on a sense & avoid system, which helps to detect if there is something in the visual path, what the speed is, its direction and whether it’s on a potential collision course. From this, one can automatically change flight plan and avoid collision.
The Power of SORA
As a drone enthusiast you may have heard about SORA and are as eager as Avy when thinking about the regulations that will be out in 2020 (we hope!).
"There are currently no laws that allow pilots to fly BVLOS. However, the new EU regulation states that anything will become possible - in theory, but as an operator one needs to show that they know and understand their mission, what it will imply and all the potential risks that may follow."
This is done using the SORA framework, Specific Operations Risk Assessment, which helps with providing an analysis of ground and air risks and a concrete plan of mitigating those risks. The SORA developments have made fast progress and will make it possible to fly BVLOS very soon. An example of a risk mitigation would be to use a transponder. As previously mentioned, the configuration and control of a transponder is done via an interface that communicates directly with air traffic control, allowing the drone operator to set mission parameters before flight, but also allowing update during flight when the situation demands it. This way, risks can be mitigated, decreasing impact and opening up a whole market for anything that can fly long range.
The Future of BVLOS
Once BVLOS is admitted and drone companies are set, the next step is to ensure public acceptance. People are fine with airplanes flying over their heads, but once drones is brought up there seems to be a lack of trust. This image of a dystopian future where drones are flying over us and making the sky no longer visible - is what sticks with people. Pi on the other hand, Avy’s founder, finds it hard to foresee a future the way Amazon have sugar coated their drone delivery services. He believes that there are great opportunities for centralised hubs or depots that could have packages delivered via drone rather than them being directly delivered at each front door step.
At Avy, we understand that if people don’t like it, regulators will follow. This is why we want to highlight the benefits that come with using drones, its cost-effective, more efficient and above all eco-friendly. We want to revolutionise the way drones are perceived and are put into practice. Ultimately, this is the reason for which we decided to focus on drones for good and contributing to a healthy world. So it’s time to get everyone on board!