To date, flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) has been tested with visual ground observers or in an “extended line of sight” scenario – one that may require as much staff as flight within visual line of sight. (Edit: Or, as some readers pointed out, using fixed wing and/or VTOL drones. ConocoPhillips Alaska, for example, performed the first BVLOS flight using Insitu’s ScanEagle back in 2013.) This week in Alaska, however, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) moved forward with a ground-breaking BVLOS flight – one that demonstrated the true value of long-range drone operations for inspections of critical infrastructure (using, edit for clarification, a commercial quadcopter.)
The mission was an almost four mile linear inspection of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. The University of Alaska team and Alyeska Pipeline Service designed the project, which involved a hybrid electric drone made for endurance flight from Skyfront, on-board sense-and-avoid technology from Iris Automation, and ground-based, high-performance radar sensors from Echodyne.
“The test was to fly the drone along the pipeline with no human involvement at all,” explains Leo McCloskey, VP Marketing at Echodyne. To achieve that, the team used a combination of technologies to ensure absolute airspace safety. In order to ensure that the Skyfront drone posed no risk to other aircraft, it carried the Iris Automation Casia system. The Casia system, says Iris Automation, “is a turnkey solution that detects, tracks and classifies other aircraft and makes intelligent decisions about the threat they may pose to the vehicle, and triggers automated maneuvers to avoid collisions.”
“The mission parameters defined by UAF really push the industry to increase sensor technology’s effectiveness,” said Iris Automation CEO and Co-founder Alexander Harmsen. “Our Casia system performed well and demonstrated that leveraging onboard detect and avoid systems is critical to mission safety and produces the results businesses are seeking.”
The Casia system worked in conjunction with 8 ground-based radars set up along the route: a set of two radars approximately every mile, which assured total coverage of the 4 mile route. Echodyne’s airspace management radar, EchoGuard, “combines cutting edge MESA technology and powerful software to create a true electronically scanning array (ESA) radar sensor,” says a company release. “Echodyne radars detect, track, and classify objects of interest in the airspace and communicate this data to situational awareness systems to ensure safety for BVLOS missions.”
McCloskey explained how the mission worked. There were two interfaces at the command center: one to monitor the drone, and one to monitor the radar. As the drone altitude followed the terrain, rising over hills and dipping over valleys, the combination of sensors allowed the operators to distinguish between “ground clutter” and true obstacles, ensuring a safe flight. “Radar is important,” says McCloskey. As enterprise companies begin to plan long range inspections, “3D Radar is the best sensor to manage that airspace so that there is always a safety first environment,” says McCloskey.
“Alaska Fairbanks’ team has shown the future of UAS missions for industrial and commercial companies,” said Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne CEO. “There are many applications that require operation beyond the operator’s sight. This practical demonstration of detect-and-avoid technologies for a real-world inspection application helps aviation authorities define the sensors and tools necessary to ensure UAS safety for dozens of industries and applications.”
Echodyne is among the companies that has worked with a number of pilot programs to test airspace security technology – and they intend to continue their efforts. “What we really like about the Integration Pilot Program projects is that these are really thoughtful teams using the right mix of sensors to come up with the best solution,” says McCloskey. “The industry really needs to learn these things.”
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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