Alexandre Habersaat is a software engineer at senseFly. Recently, Alexandre sat down with Unmanned Airspace to discuss how the company became the first BVLOS drone operator to be granted ‘anytime’ flight authorisation in Switzerland, senseFly’s ongoing collaboration with aviation authorities and how he sees UAV operations evolving over the next five years.
The following article originally appeared in Unmanned Airspace
Hi Alex. How were beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone regulatory requirements satisfied in France, Spain, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada and China, and what were the major differences between these countries in the way they assess and approve authorisations to fly?
Trials, demos and data collection have been key in facilitating progress in the BVLOS arena. Currently, only a few manufacturers and operators have been able to secure temporary or permanent BVLOS operations, and in 2017 senseFly became the first drone operator to be granted ‘anytime’ BVLOS drone authorisation in Switzerland. We have since had systems approved for BVLOS use in France, Spain, Denmark, Canada and China, with regular operations also conducted in countries such as Rwanda, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.
Learnings from initiatives such as the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) and Canadian BVLOS trials in North America, as well as from European initiatives like the UK Pathfinder programme, the S2 and S4 Scenarios in France and the BVLOS Standard Scenarios in Switzerland, have been integral in this evolution, and have enabled many countries to rapidly grow their involvement in BVLOS operations. Close, continued cooperation with regulations—ensuring flights are not conducted over large crowds of people, for instance—have also been instrumental in this success.
While this is a significant step forward, receiving a BVLOS drone authorisation can be challenging, with many projects restricted and complex to scale up, and we would like to see this process become simplified to enable more users to utilise BVLOS in their operations. Gathering more data on the safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of BVLOS flights will be essential to making this a reality, and will support greater public acceptance and scalability, while also helping to establish a robust framework for BVLOS operations in the future.
What are the most complex operations for which you’ve been certified to fly?
senseFly’s ongoing collaboration with aviation authorities, organisations and other partners has enabled us to explore a range of complex, potential BVLOS applications. In Switzerland, for instance, we successfully carried out a BVLOS drone mission of up to 2 km from a single visual observer, 150 m above ground level. We’ve also completed corridor mapping missions up to 8 km long—4 km to each side of the main operator—with several observers or a moving observer. Participation in the NASA TCL3 trials also saw us fly BVLOS 1.2 miles from the ground control station (GCS); here, multiple flights were underway in the vicinity and there were multiple USS involved, which presented a significant challenge for the operator.
Furthermore, in partnership with leading Canadian drone operator, IN-FLIGHT Data, we embarked upon Canada’s largest BVLOS trial to date in 2018 [watch the webinar], where we completed a total of 2,723.04 km of BVLOS flight over a four-month period. This ambitious project saw us complete North America’s first BVLOS drone project over a major city; here, the team conducted a total of 414 km (257 mi) pf BVLOS operations at an average distance of 2.35 km (1.46 mi) from the pilot using a senseFly eBee Plus fixed-wing drone.
Such projects have enabled us to gather a huge amount of geo-accurate data across a number of BVLOS applications, and have provided excellent insight into the future potential for BVLOS drone operations across a variety of verticals. They have also helped to show that, when correctly managed and executed, BVLOS can be an incredibly efficient, safe and cost-effective mapping tool. We’re excited to see what the future holds for BVLOS in other complex applications.
What are the main features of your risk assessment methodology?
The main challenge for the unmanned aircraft industry at the moment is that there is very little data from the use of drones in BVLOS applications, and as such new metrics and proxies, as well as support from key industry organisations and professional drone users, is essential. This will be key in helping us to build convincing arguments for the National Aviation Authorities (NAA) to allow drone operators across the globe to fly BVLOS. While we’re confident that, as an industry, we are already well within acceptable safety levels, the more data we have the better the risk models and the more effective we can be in our operations.
The Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems’ (JARUS) Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) will also be key in helping to establish robust BVLOS standards. The JARUS SORA considers how to reduce the risk to an acceptable level by looking at the whole operation holistically and defining requirements for each operation, both in the air and on the ground. Utilising the data models we have available, from air traffic to terrain models and population density maps, combined with the SORA methodology, we can quickly establish whether an operation is able to go ahead. Switzerland’s Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) has also played an important role in defining BVLOS regulations, collaborating heavily with the JARUS SORA and partners and experts worldwide, to shape BVLOS frameworks and the evolution of aviation regulations across the globe.
How do you see your operations evolving over the next five years?
We believe that drones have the potential to revolutionise the way that professionals across a wide range of verticals collect and use data, particularly as BVLOS operations become more widespread and sophisticated. The success of previous BVLOS projects has demonstrated this potential, although there is still work that can be done to refine and improve these techniques.
As the industry develops, however, so will the capabilities of drone technology, which we’re confident will help to further facilitate greater adoption of BVLOS techniques—particularly following the launch of innovative solutions like the eBee X fixed-wing drone, which will help users to map without limits. Through the use of better batteries, motors and frames, for example, our drones will have the endurance to fly further and map larger areas than ever before. We will also be looking to establish an integrated approach to BVLOS operations, covering everything from adhering to defined, fit-for-purpose operating rules to designing end-to-end drone solutions with appropriate safety mechanisms and exceptional navigation performance. There will, undoubtedly, be challenges, and for this reason collaboration with experts, partners and stakeholders will be paramount to shaping a regulatory environment that facilitates efficient, and above all safe, use of drones in BVLOS applications.
What technologies do you use to track the platforms and communicate with them over distance?
To-date, we have successfully carried out BVLOS missions at distances of up to 8 km around the operator. In addition to ensuring permanent, consistent radio contact throughout our operations, our modems have a range of up to 8 km, allowing us to maintain close contact. If radio contact is lost during flight, the drone automatically returns to the ‘Home’ point to ensure that the operator retains control throughout. Ongoing communication with local air traffic control and live air traffic monitoring capabilities within our drone’s flight software also help us to further monitor the drone’s position during flight and make sure that we can detect and avoid other aircraft simultaneously using the airspace.
This is something that will be a key focus for us at senseFly and for the geospatial industry as a whole now and in years to come. Achieving safe, autonomous BVLOS drone flight—where humans take on a management, rather than piloting, role—will help to streamline BVLOS operations and will be a major step forward for the industry, however it will only be possible with robust detect and avoid processes in place to allow the detection of cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft before and during flight. Existing direct broadcast systems, like ADS-B, are a great step in the right direction, but require all aircraft to be equipped with this technology to ensure safety. Enhanced measures like these, which enable drone technology to further mitigate the risk of in-air collisions, will be integral in elevating operational safety of this technology and accelerating public acceptance of BVLOS drone operations.