FAA Approves Beyond Visual Line of Sight Operations for 3 UAS Firms

Phoenix Air Unmanned, UPS Flight Forward, and uAvionix each received authorization to fly drones without the watchful eye of a remote pilot.

FAA BVLOS drone waivers

UPS Flight Forward will use Matternet’s UPS-branded M2 drone to deliver small packages beyond the pilot’s line of sight. [Courtesy: UPS]

A trio of firms just received FAA authorization to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) where their operators can’t see them.

The agency on Wednesday approved drone parcel delivery operator and UPS subsidiary Flight Forward and avionics provider uAvionix for UAS operations beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of a remote pilot, opening the door to longer flights, new markets, and fewer restrictions on ground personnel. The authorizations follow the FAA’s granting of similar permissions to drone inspection provider Phoenix Air Unmanned (PAU) in August.

Flight Forward, uAvionix, PAU, and a fourth firm, medical drone delivery provider Zipline, initially requested BVLOS exemptions earlier this year. Their applications were published in the Federal Register for comment in May, drawing feedback from industry trade associations, aviation groups, and even rival companies. Zipline’s approval is expected to be announced in the coming weeks, the FAA told FLYING.

“The FAA is focused on developing standard rules to make BVLOS operations routine, scalable and economically viable,” the agency said in its announcement. “The agency chartered the BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee on June 9, 2021, to provide safety recommendations to the FAA. We are reviewing their final report. The FAA’s long-term goal is to safely integrate drones into the National Airspace System rather than set aside separate airspace exclusively for drones.”

With the new authorizations, the FAA hopes to collect data that will inform its proposed rule on UAS BVLOS operations, also published in the Federal Register in May along with the four exemption requests. 

The agency also told FLYING companies that can recreate the approved firms’ operational conditions will now be able to obtain BVLOS approvals more quickly. It said it selected the four companies because each sought BVLOS waivers for different use cases: parcel delivery (Flight Forward), medical delivery (Zipline), inspections (PAU), and flight systems development (uAvionix).

Each use case opens a path to exemptions for companies with similar operations, allowing them to use the waivers as models for their own operations. For example, a company looking to deliver small packages might build around Flight Forward’s business.

“Our goal is to work towards summary grants as we continue towards rulemaking,” said David Boulter, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

Summary grants are essentially streamlined authorizations for “copycat” companies with similar infrastructure, aircraft, and technology to those who have already been approved.

What’s in the Approvals?

Flight Forward’s exemption authorizes the firm to conduct BVLOS small parcel deliveries using drone manufacturer Matternet’s M2 UAS. In lieu of visual observers—ground personnel stationed along the flight path to maintain a line of sight with the drone during flight—the company will now deploy remote operation centers across its network, using them to facilitate deliveries from tens or even hundreds of miles away.

The FAA revised some of Flight Forward’s requests relating to minimum safe altitudes, VFR visibility requirements, and pilot-in-command qualifications. But the company’s application was largely accepted as submitted.

The same can be said of uAvionix, which has now been approved to test its detect-and-avoid technology on a custom UAS flying BVLOS. The UAS, called Rapace, has a maximum takeoff weight of 26.5 pounds and was granted a special airworthiness certificate—experimental class (SAC-EC) by the FAA. It includes in-house avionics, command-and-control radios, autopilot systems, and positioning sensors from uAvionix.

The company will fly Rapace within the Vantis Network, North Dakota’s statewide UAS BVLOS program, with partners such as Thales to help its customers better understand BVLOS operations and waivers.

“The concept here is that the program team works out the ‘recipe’ for BVLOS exemptions, which are repeatable by other operators in the future,” Christian Ramsey, managing director of uAvionix, told FLYING in May. “In the end, this exemption isn’t about our operations…It’s about trailblazing and developing an infrastructure that others can use to achieve their own operational and business goals.”

UAvionix will need a Letter of Authorization from the FAA to conduct operations that rely on UAS traffic management (UTM) or third-party service providers. Otherwise, its requests were largely approved with minor conditions and limitations.

Similarly, PAU has been authorized to fly the SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 unmanned helicopter for BVLOS aerial photography, surveying, and powerline and pipeline patrol and inspection. Operations are permitted below 400 feet above certain roads and in sparsely populated areas beneath preplanned flight paths.

The approval builds on the company’s Part 107 waiver, issued in March, for BVLOS operations with aircraft under 55 pounds. That permission did not cover the SVO 50 V2, which weighs about 190 pounds. Like Flight Forward and uAvionix, PAU’s requests were largely approved with some restrictions.

Zipline’s request is under review, but the firm is expected to join its fellow applicants in the coming weeks. It seeks to replace visual observers with its patented acoustic detect-and-avoid system (DAA) and other onboard systems—unlike Flight Forward, it would eliminate the use of ground personnel almost entirely.

The authorizations are clearly a welcome development for Flight Forward, uAvionix, and PAU. But not everyone supported them. A few industry groups repeatedly popped up in the comments to oppose the approvals, namely the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), and drone connectivity solutions provider ElSight. They worried BVLOS flights could pose hazards to low-altitude manned aircraft.

The FAA, however, countered that the approvals are in the public interest. They will allow the agency to gather information on BVLOS operations as it works toward a final rule that will ultimately shape the UAS industry for years—and potentially decades—to come.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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