Many industries already embrace commercial drone operations as a cost-effective method for large-scale pipeline and other site and facility inspections, previously done on the ground or via expensive helicopter operations. But it is still early in the world of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with many companies still learning how to get major programs running. Commercial drone programs are gaining traction, especially in the oil and gas sector, and some developments are required to make them truly mainstream for a wide range of surveying industries.
THE DRONE ALTERNATIVE
Commercial drone inspections offer a cost-effective and often safer alternative to helicopter or on-the-ground inspections. Helicopters, typically rented for a day (eight hours minimum even if needed for only a few hours), quickly become an expensive undertaking considering costs are often well over $1,000 an hour. Helicopter crews also cannot get as close to infrastructure or sites as drones. Similarly, deploying ground crews can be costly, slow, sometimes hazardous, and not always as effective as drones, which take aerial views and submit data.
Drones can collect data as often as daily and can be deployed more selectively. They can be deployed for a 20-mile inspection area or used for ad hoc spot checks without the cost of a full flight crew and aircraft for the day. This provides an extremely flexible and cost-effective platform that is easy to use for data collection, filling a huge gap by accessing and capturing areas at a fraction of the cost, allowing more frequent inspections
CRACKING THE BEYOND VISUAL LINE OF SIGHT (BVLOS) NUT
A key limitation on commercial drones, however, is their ability to operate “beyond visual line of sight” or BVLOS. It is a major nut for the industry to crack to make drone operations scalable and more viable.
Regulations around the world are evolving as authorities work through the issues of integrating commercial drone operations into mainstream airspace. In the U.S., for example, operators must maintain command and control at all times, avoid flights over people, and avoid collisions with other aircraft. This is why maintaining Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) is a critical part of 14 CFR Part 107, the law governing drone flight. But it limits the distance a drone can fly to roughly one mile, with at least one pilot on the ground managing the drone. Part 107 can be viewed at faa.gov/uas/commercial_operators.
For large scale site inspections, this means drone crews must continuously reset their base of operations, flying the drone in one location then moving to the next mile to start a flight again. This is clearly not scalable or cost-effective.
FAA approval (a waiver) is required to perform Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, allowing drones to fly long distances. But these approvals are notoriously difficult to obtain as they require drone operators to identify potential operational risks and propose risk mitigation strategies to ensure the safety of other aircraft, people, and the property below. If granted, the approvals are also limited to a specific geography.
But as the space evolves, the drone industry (service providers, manufacturers, technology providers) are working closely with the FAA to help define the appropriate guidelines. One objective is to expand BVLOS operations, allowing operators to reach 40 or more miles a day. How do you do that?
ADDRESSING THE REGULATIONS
Applying for a waiver takes time. It includes building an adequate safety case and concept of operations, then collecting all of the data to back it up. After submitting all of your plans to the FAA, initial project approvals typically take 90 days, while amendments to an existing approval are reported to take 30 days.
In addition to the specific missions these waivers permit, they also contribute to the growing amount of data and operational learnings necessary to support BLVOS applications and flights in the future. The FAA and companies from many different industries – including oil and gas, power companies, mining and all manner of different infrastructure companies – continue to work together to demonstrate their ability to fly BLVOS in a safe and efficient way.
GETTING YOUR DRONE PROGRAM OFF THE GROUND
The initial aircraft investment can get you up and running, but BVLOS operations require commercial drones with long-distance duration and higher payload capacities to support the sensors and communications systems needed to capture data, make decisions and ensure safety. True BVLOS inspections also require significant changes to your operations — even if you currently fly drones with visual observers. Operators must demonstrate a history of safe flights and procedures and a familiarity with safety, licensing and compliance. Finding a department head to lead operations experienced with aviation programs and working with licensed pilots bolsters safety and minimizes risk.
You can learn more about the BVLOS process at our comprehensive Regulatory Resource Center, irisonboard.com/regulatory-resource-center, which provides a guide for companies to work through the regulatory process.
REACHING THE FULL POTENTIAL OF DRONE OPERATIONS
The ROI on drone-based operations will only continue to improve as the technology gets smarter and the regulations defined. The ability to store and analyze the data captured by drones also introduces a level of monitoring previously unheard of.
But the big breakthrough is BVLOS and covering the long distances demanded by oil and gas inspections, and making it viable to fly multiple drones with only one pilot versus one pilot to one drone. For oil and gas companies it will become a critical resource for its surveillance and inspection operations.
Gabrielle Wain is vice president of global policy and government affairs at Iris Automation. Gabrielle has over 10 years of experience advising government agencies and multinational companies on policy and international relations. At Iris Automation, she leads strategy on shaping safety policy and standards with the FAA and Transport Canada, as well as the delivery of services to help customers achieve BVLOS operations. Learn more at irisonboard.com