It’s an exciting time for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) research, with one of the largest BVLOS trials in the world currently underway in Canada. Waypoint recently sat down with the head of the ambitious project, Chris Healy, owner and operator at IN-FLIGHT Data, to better understand the purpose of the project and what he expects to learn from it.
Hi Chris, thank you so much for sitting down with us. It’s a very busy and exciting time for you. Can you give us an overview of the BVLOS trial you’re conducting?
Absolutely, so with the BVLOS trials I’m working on, we want to show that BVLOS UAS flights can be conducted safely, efficiently and that they will have a positive impact on all Canadians.
How do you intend to do that?
We’re collecting data from over 1,500 km (932 miles) of BVLOS flight conducted across 14 different sites in western Canada.
And what UAS will you use to conduct these trials?
We’re using two types of UAS: the senseFly eBee and eBee Plus. The project itself is massive. In total, we have more than 20 large Canadian organisations working together in a non-economic partnership, with each organisation providing their unique BVLOS perspective.
How long will the project run? And what are some specific goals you hope to accomplish?
The project started in March and will run until September 2018. We have several goals, really. The intent the of the trials is to provide the industry with BVLOS data, to validate BVLOS technologies and to help guide the development of future BVLOS regulations.
Can you tell us why you believe the trials will be a success?
That’s a good question. I honestly believe the depth and breadth of our project will help a lot. I also think our previous success with large-scale UAS operations plays a big role. We have experience conducting more than 4,000 km of UAS flight annually.
Does the fact that you have such a wide array of organisations working together play a key role in any way?
I believe so, yes. We’re not just focused on one or two use cases. There are nine use cases we’re working on. And we have trusted and successful Canadian organisations that we’re working with.
You mentioned the potential for the trials to have a positive impact on all Canadians. Can you provide us with some examples?
Absolutely! Things like saving lives faster or monitoring pipelines more often; improving the yield on the family farm or reducing property taxes through improvements in municipal operations. As I mentioned, the project involves a broad partnership working together across a wide range of industries and sectors. These partnerships bring together very strong technical expertise in UAS technology, UTM management, aeronautics, flight operations, etc. We have search and rescue, agriculture, energy and municipal operations [working on the trials]. This project is all about demonstrating how BVLOS UAS flight can benefit a very, very wide cross-section of the Canadian landscape.
This project is all about demonstrating how BVLOS UAS flight can benefit a very, very wide cross-section of the Canadian landscape.
Can you talk us through the organisations involved?
It’s a very long list! We’re working with AirMap, the City of Calgary, the National Research Council of Canada and senseFly, just to name a few.
So, let’s jump into the juicy details: what will a typical BVLOS mission look like?
Well, we have 14 sites across nine use cases. The intent here is to gather flight data points and sensor data points. We’re planning on flying an optical payload, a near infrared payload and a thermal payload for a flight section that measures about two miles by two miles. And that’s really so we can get an assessment of the types of data we can collect with BVLOS, and so we can produce some very good deliverables for our clients to be able to assess the value of BVLOS data for their operations.
Can you provide some examples of the types of deliverables?
We’re looking to gather all kinds of sensor data, RGB, NIR, and thermal data for each site. We’ll also collect flight safety data, such as speed, altitude rate of climb/descent, IMU positions, temperature, wind speed and flight plan comparisons.
What types of BVLOS use cases will you and your partner organisations work on during the duration of the trials?
Altogether, we’re going to conduct hundreds of flights across multiple use cases. They’ll total roughly 1,500 kilometers (about 580 miles) of cumulative BVLOS flight. For the oil and gas industry, we’ll be conducting a pipeline survey and inspection on stretches of oil and gas pipelines in remote access areas up in northern Alberta. For municipal operations, both for the city of Calgary and the town of High River, our work will be around land use planning and wide area survey. On the large-scale agriculture side, we have Cargill Foods and United Farmers of Alberta. For Cargill, they are responsible for maintaining the environmental integrity of a watershed near High River, and we want to do some analysis on whether they can use UAS and BVLOS flight to measure their building management outcomes. With UFA, it’s really about precision agriculture, crop scouting and crop health for farms of more than 10,000 acres. The same applies for Sewell Farms. And lastly, with search and rescue, we want to do some large-area mapping and subject location and identification. That’s going to take place in northern Alberta as well.
Out of the use cases you mentioned, which is the most interesting?
I think one of the most interesting has to be search and rescue, and I’ll tell you why. People have known for a while now the value that BVLOS can bring to oil and gas, especially when it comes to pipeline surveys and inspection. That’s been out there for some time. While that’s exciting, it’s not necessarily new. Same with agriculture. We’ve seen the value that BVLOS can bring to agriculture operations, especially for farms larger than 10,000 acres. But perhaps the most exciting [use case] from our perspective is demonstrating how BVLOS can benefit search and rescue by reducing how long it takes to find a person and how long it takes to rescue them.
But perhaps the most exciting [use case] from our perspective is demonstrating how BVLOS can benefit search and rescue by reducing how long it takes to find a person and how long it takes to rescue them.
That’s very cool! The application for drones to save lives is one we don’t get to hear about often.
We’ve actually demonstrated this before, but we’re really looking forward to demonstrating this with BVLOS. Search and rescue can happen anywhere, and it can cover very wide areas that don’t necessarily fall within visual line of sight. So, the benefits of having BVLOS capability for search and rescue operations means that we’re able to find people faster, save more lives and protect more property.
What other use cases are you particularly excited to explore and share your research data about?
I’m excited about the benefits BVLOS will bring to municipal operations. There is a real correlation between operational expenses within a municipality and how it ties back to tax rates, which affects how citizens are taxed within a city or a town. So, if municipalities can reduce their operating costs, they can reduce tax rates and the tax burden on their citizens.
There is a real correlation between operational expenses within a municipality and how it ties back to tax rates, which affects how citizens are taxed within a city or a town. So, if municipalities can reduce their operating costs, they can reduce tax rates and the tax burden on their citizens.
What do you expect the biggest challenges to be during this trial and how do you plan to combat these?
Flight planning. Flight planning. And more flight planning! Site surveys will also prove challenging. Matching the planned world to the real world and mitigating the differences is never easy. We take site surveys and flight planning very seriously. We like to be sure that when we’re in the field, we know what to expect and plan for that contingency.
Will interested readers be able to follow your project or access its learnings in future?
Yes, they can follow me on LinkedIn.
Aside from the project itself, you’re a highly experienced commercial drone operator, and through this project, you’re set to become one of the most experienced BVLOS operators in the world. If you look to the future, how much commercial UAS activity do you expect BVLOS operations to account for? What do the Canadian skies look like five or even ten years from now?
For us as an organisation, we expect the worldwide BVLOS export market to exceed 120 billion Canadian dollars by 2023. This project gives us the pedigree to jump into the world market with a significant advantage and to capture part of that market. Canada is at the vanguard of BVLOS innovation, which is truly a disruptive innovation. We are confident that our project has the necessary plans, support and experience to deliver positive results.
Canada is at the vanguard of BVLOS innovation, which is truly a disruptive innovation.
Thank you again for sitting down with us, Chris!
You’re very welcome.