Since the birth of the U.S. drone-service industry, one cannot have a drone conversation without mentioning the idea of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Perhaps no example is more infamous than Amazon's idea of delivering packages autonomously. This application challenges two of the most basic federal drone regulations, (1) a 1:1 ratio of physical human pilot to aircraft and (2) drone pilots maintaining unaided visual line of sight with a drone throughout the entirety of an operation. Executing a task like Amazon's is a major feat within itself, and it has the potential to change the industrial drone landscape as a whole. That being said, industry experts talk about how BVLOS operations will replace manned operations, but how true is that? Are Helicopters and Airplanes becoming obsolete for industrial applications?
Amazon's Drone Package Delivery faces a laundry list of issues that must be solved long before execution. After the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorizes such missions, they must then consider many operational, logistical, political, and social issues. The major safety questions at the forefront are how do the drones detect and avoid other aircraft? How is situational awareness addressed at a level that proves confidence and safety?
Conceptually it's simple. In actuality it's strangely problematic. Executing BVLOS operations in Sky Scape's application has a list of unique issues. For example, Sky Scape power line inspections can involve many different drone maneuvers in, under, around, and on top of a single structure. While the legal protocols for such operations are not available today, they will be here in the foreseeable future. (Image below shows a typical drone mission of a power line structure inspection mission)
Drones today must be able to perform these complex movements quickly and sequentially in order to compete with scaled traditional methods. If put mathematically, the cost statement would like something like this:
(Drone sense-and-avoid technology) + (regulatory permission) > (manned aircraft operations)
Such a statement does not come without caveats. (1) Drone sense-and-avoid technology is still in development. Over time the development would allow for financially affordable solutions. (2) While the FAA has made strides, we are still years away from final guidance. (3) Manned aircraft operations already contain sense-and-avoid technology and (in some cases) offer the best solution at the present time.
What is the solution?
Drones have opened up hundreds of new applications for the aerial industry not just because of their added safety and accessibility, but because of the capable sensors and techniques in data collection. These techniques spark new ideas. These sensors make those ideas affordable. Therefore, our solution for large scale missions (until BVLOS is streamlined) is to integrate drone sensors on manned aircraft.
Recently, Sky Scape was tasked with providing a right-of-way (ROW) inspection of an existing power line that was scheduled for construction. The owner of the power line needed data on current conditions of the ROW but could not access large portions of the line due to wetlands restrictions. A drone was requested to assist.
It was determined that because of the ROWs' close proximity to an active airport (0.4 miles) and the scale of the target area (6+ miles), a manned flight would be the most effective solution. Because drone technology lacks adequate sense-and-avoid technology, operating that close to potentially low-altitude aircraft is not only unsafe, it is illegal.
Even if it were safe and legal, the data requirements for this particular job would have proven too stressful for a single drone operation and too expensive for multiple operations. Sky Scape instead deployed a helicopter to complete the mission.
The helicopter was outfitted with multiple sensors which traditionally are designed for drones. The combined efforts of the experienced helicopter pilot and the Sky Scape sensor(s) operator yielded a dataset that exceeded expectations.
Final Data Delivered
2D Geo-reference map of target area (in visible RGB)
Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of target area
Images to assess entry/egress areas for future construction
Pictured (right) RGB geospatial map of ROW, (below) digital elevation model (DEM), (bottom right) DEM zoomed in.
Original/Intended Use of Final Data
Situational awareness of inaccessible ROW
Documentation of pre-construction conditions
Identify points on access/egress for construction planning
Unforeseen Value-Add of Final Data
Ability to accurately measure for environmental infrastructure (matting)
Compare actual condition to plans
ROW current standing-water conditions
3D vegetation analysis
Identification of 3rd party/unauthorized ROW activities
Data pushed to bidding construction contractors - more accurate bids
Documentation for DEP/regulatory commissions
Comparable to post-construction flights (future missions)
Pictured (right) using map imagery to accurately measure for environmental mapping.
Pictured (left) overlaying CAD plans on top of map imagery for increased planning accuracy.
Pictured (right) 3D modeling of ROW to determine vegetative conditions/obstructions within ROW.
While some claim drones are the new answer for every use-case, others claim they have hardly any place in such applications. In reality drones are invaluable...for the right applications. Sky Scape's approach to offering unmanned technology (drones) and manned technology (helicopters outfitted with drone sensing technology) position the company to offer the safest and most effective solution available given today's aviation industry climate. Every mission is different. We figure out the safest and most effective way to complete it.
Nate Ernst, President
Sky Scape Industries