2022 is certainly the year of BVLOS. Short for Beyond Visual Line of Sight, such drone operations are critical for many impactful drone operations, especially things like drone delivery or inspections of widespread remote areas like Chevron and ConocoPhillips oil pipelines.
While most airspace regulators do not allow BVLOS flights for most situations, this year we’ve seen exponential growth in the number of waivers or special approvals offered to companies that would allow them to conduct BVLOS drone operations.
And some major names including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Stockpile Reports are set to profit from such approvals.
American Robotics announced in late April that it had added seven additional sites of operation approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for its automated BVLOS drone technology, which is dubbed the Scout System. That brings American Robotics’ portfolio of sites approved by the FAA for automated BVLOS drone operations up to 10, spanning eight U.S. states. These latest FAA approvals allow for drone flights under 400 feet within the operational area defined by each site.
The seven new BVLOS sites are located across six states, and range in size from 0.1 square miles to 14 square miles. Those states are:
- North Dakota
- New Mexico
- South Carolina
The news is largely being applauded by the drone industry as an important step toward scalable autonomous operations within the commercial drone industry.
“Not only is this a milestone for American Robotics, but it is also another signal that we have reached an inflection point in commercial drone operations in the United States, and American Robotics is proud to be at the forefront of these industry advancements,” said Reese Mozer, co-founder and CEO of American Robotics.
The approvals mean that American Robotics will now be able to conduct BVLOS operations in those areas for its customers, which include Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Stockpile Reports.
American Robotics also holds the title of being the first company approved by the FAA to operate automated drones without human operators on-site. The Marlborough, Massachusetts-based drone company is known for its Scout System, which the company markets as a “drone-in-a-box” turnkey data solution service. The robot-as-a-service company offers features including automated system diagnostics, path planning, and aircraft avoidance.
Earlier this year, we saw the first BVLOS drone flights of U.S. oil refineries take off. Those were conducted by another “drone-in-a-box” company. That one was Israel-based Percepto, which also recently received FAA approval for BVLOS drone operations, which it conducted over refineries in Texas and Arkansas on behalf of Delek US Holdings. Delek is a company that handles crude oil and refined production via its networks of gathering, transportation and storage systems.
And companies like Chevron have long been interested in drones. For example, Chevron revealed last year that drones were being used to conduct visual and thermal inspection of its onshore flare stacks in Indonesia.
What’s the big deal about BVLOS?
Currently, most drone operations fall under FAA regulations that human pilots and visual observers are required to be present on-site. That is, unless your flight is approved by the FAA for a waiver and exemption package.
Some drone industry advocates say that rules against BVLOS flights are impractical and reduce the affordability and viability of commercial drone use in industries, including oil and gas, rail and stockpiles, drone delivery and mining. In fact, American Robotics said it estimates that BVLOS and truly autonomous drone operations are required to scale 90 percent of commercial drone use cases.
Advocates say BVLOS drone operations can save companies time and money. They also say there’s an environmental aspect.
“Automating high-frequency inspections is critical for oil and gas companies to comply with global climate change mitigation commitments and regulations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new Clean Air Act rule, intended to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030,” according to a statement from Ondas Holdings, which owns American Robotics.
Ondas added that it estimates that, overall, the oil and gas industry is projected to spend $15.6 billion on digital transformations (like drones) by the end of the decade. Drones could be particularly important for companies like Chevron and ConocoPhillips, which otherwise aren’t exactly known for being environmentally friendly.
Happily, BVLOS approvals are becoming increasingly common. Just last month, the city of Reno, Nevada granted drone company Iris Automation a waiver to use the company’s Casia G ground-based solution for BVLOS operations. Plus, the City of Reno’s Fire Department received a waiver to use Iris’s Casia X for BVLOS flights. There’s also big progress being made in international BVLOS approvals, including in Israel and Europe.
And the FAA itself is in the midst of overhauling the current state of its BVLOS rules. In fact, now-former FAA Administrator Steve Dickson once called current BVLOS regulations a “drag” on the drone industry’s momentum. Expect big changes to come this year, especially in light of the fact that the FAA’s BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) final report finally published in March 2022.