Avitas FAA shell BVLOS drone

The FAA is finally convinced that massive drones can safely fly long distances without visual observers

It took a fair bit of time, but the Federal Aviation Administration has finally been convinced that it is possible for a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds to safely fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

The FAA in October issued approval to Boston-based Avitas Systems to fly drones that weigh more than 55 pounds at low altitudes without a visual observer. The drones will be used for for industrial inspections of Shell Oil Company property in Loving County, Texas. This is the first FAA-approved civil use of BVLOS drones weighing more than 55 pounds with radar.

Under the current regulatory framework for commercial drone operations in the U.S. (Part 107), drone flights BVLOS of the pilot are prohibited without an approval from the FAA.

Waivers to fly drones beyond visual line of sight are not very common to begin with — heavy drones or not. Only 23 BVLOS waivers had been issued in the U.S. for drones weighing less than 55 pounds since July 2018, according to an analysis by AUVSI.

But the Avitas approval is unique. All of those approvals required the use of a visual observer or a second pilot to visually scan the airspace with their eyes to identify other aircraft that could create a collision hazard with the drone. The permission granted to Avitas Systems allows for BVLOS drone operations without the use of a visual observer. 

Avitas is a venture company of American multinational conglomerate General Electric. The company is based in Boston and launched in 2017 to bring robotics, AI and predictive analytics to industrial inspections. The idea is to replace manual visual surveys with data, and AI-powered software can predict where there may be problems. Its initial customers were oil and gas companies for projects such as flare stack inspections.

Avitas initiated the request back in March.

“Avitas Systems’ new permission represents a very important development for oil and gas safety, and for the commercial drone industry at large,” said Lisa Ellman, Chair of Hogan Lovells’ global UAS practice and Co-Executive Director, Commercial Drone Alliance. “The FAA’s willingness to approve BVLOS operations that rely on technology mitigations, like ground-based radar, as opposed to impractical operational mitigations like visual observers, is a strong step in the right direction.”

With the new FAA approval, Avitas will use drones to inspect industrial infrastructure beyond visual distance of the pilot in the Permian Basin in West Texas. Avitas says the permit will lead to more cost efficiency and faster facility repairs, compared to traditional methods such as driving to each individual inspection site.

“We worked closely with Shell Oil Company for the use case, location, and to show how this technology can improve industrial operational efficiency and safety,” said Brad Tomer, Interim CEO for Avitas Systems, in a prepared statement. “The FAA provided the necessary feedback to enable our team to design a system that safely meets the aviation regulatory requirements.”

BVLOS waiver with Shell aside, Avitas says it has also branched out beyond the oil and gas industry to other applications, such as checking train tracks for weak rail ties that might cause derailment, as well as orbit airplane frames to search for dents and scratches.

Avitas says it can slash 90-minute inspections to half an hour.

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