NCDOT and Skydio Team Up and Receive the First-Ever BVLOS Waiver
The last time the North Carolina Department of Transportation featured on our blog, we discussed how they were involved in a groundbreaking moment in drone legislation. To summarize, in 2018, NCDOT was selected by the FAA to participate in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program. This program aims to bring together local and national governments to “accelerate safe drone integration.” As a result, NCDOT was able to work with UPS to complete the United States’ first-ever commercial drone delivery, flying a Matternet drone across the WakeMed campus to deliver medical supplies.
In their proposal for the program, NCDOT aspired to tackle safety issues such as flying over people, beyond visual line of sight, and at night. Delivering medical supplies, food delivery, and conducting bridge and infrastructure inspections, “especially after natural disasters”, were the purposes they chose to focus on primarily. According to NCDOT’s webpage on the program, the pandemic led to them refocusing their efforts to using drones specifically to help fight against COVID-19 through medical supply and food delivery.
Recently, NCDOT received the first-ever BVLOS waiver, permitting them to pilot drones beyond the visual line of sight. This achievement is a big deal and another groundbreaking moment. When it comes to commercial and recreational drone regulation, flying your drone outside your range of visibility is a big no-no. In the FAA’s rules for recreational fliers, they direct fliers to “[k]eep your drone within your visual line of sight, or within the visual line-of-sight of a visual observer who is co-located (physically next to) and in direct communication with you.” Commercial operators fly under similar conditions, but they have the opportunity to apply for a waiver, though the waiver does have stipulations: “The FAA will not waive this section to allow the carriage of property of another by aircraft for compensation or hire.” Even first responders have to apply for Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight waivers.
BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) piloting is seen as a safety concern. It is performed with the pilot monitoring the drone through a camera feed or by an autonomous drone in ideal situations. Without direct observation, drones being operated this way could pose a risk of damaging property and people. On the other hand, not allowing for BVLOS operations has severely limited what people can do with drones. The aforementioned drone deliveries, emergencies, and infrastructure inspections are examples of circumstances where drones would make things more efficient and safer.
For this reason, NCDOT being the first state transportation agency to receive the BVLOS waiver, opens the door for continued safe drone integration. With it, they can now operate UAS beyond visual line of sight to perform bridge inspections. For these inspections, they will be using drones from Skydio, inc., a drone and software production company that specializes in autonomous drones. We have discussed Skydio previously on our blog. Their debut drone, R1, was able to autonomously track cars and fly autonomously over large bodies of water. They have since released the SKydio 2, a drone that raises the bar in terms of autonomy. In a video on the Women Who Drone YouTube channel, Elena reviews the Skydio 2 and tests its autonomous tracking abilities.
Since the beginning of the year, Skydio has put more effort into being at the forefront of discussions regarding drone regulations and actually helped NCDOT develop the waiver application. In his February interview with protocol.com, Brendan Groves, Skydio’s new head of regulatory and policy affairs, discusses the company’s goals and the state of drone regulations at the time. There, he mentions that obtaining waivers to fly over people and beyond the line of sight is a slow process that “makes it tough to use drones in emergency situations.” Receiving this waiver is another step forward in the endeavor to safely integrate UAS into airspace, an endeavor that seems to be surging confidently ahead.
Tyesha Ferron is a writer and an artist based in Atlanta, Georgia. Specializing in digital art, Tyesha loves exploring the new ways technology intersects with culture and how drones make things more efficient and accessible for artists, hobbyists, and industry professionals. As a novice drone enthusiast, she continues to be impressed by what the drone community and industry can accomplish.