Can You Fly A Drone Beyond Visual Line of Sight?

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image beyond visual line of sight
Me with my drone

Drones are a lot of fun and an awesome business opportunity. We started our family business, then created this blog to offer advice to others that are interested in this technology. 

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You should know that I am paranoid about maintaining a visual line of sight with my drone. The only time I’ve ever crashed was when I lost sight of my drone behind a tree, I panicked and hit the pause button which caused the drone to land where it was. Which was in the tree.

However, I realize that the business and technology landscape for drones is changing, and there are many applications that will require drones to fly beyond visual lines of sight and without manual control.

Current FAA regulations require that either the remote pilot or an observer maintain a visual line of sight with the drone at all times during the flight. This is a fundamental tenant of the part-107 regulations for small unmanned aircraft systems. However, in March 2022 an Advisory Committee recommended changes to allow beyond visual line of site operation. While there’s no timeline for these changes, it is expected that they will be adopted in the near future.

images of BVLOS changes

Most current applications require visual line of sight to be maintained. However future applications like package delivery, large-scale land survey, and agriculture surveys will require that drones fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in addition to flying autonomously. Big changes to drone regulations are coming soon. Get ready.

What Are The Rules for BVLOS?

Current Regulations

In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued Part 107 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” This document stated the requirements for small uncrewed aircraft (UA) operations in the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS).

Section 31 applies to the operation of drones within visual line of sight.

Part 107.31 Visual line of sight aircraft operation

(A) With vision that is unaided by any device other than corrective lenses, the remote pilot in command, the visual observer (if one is used), and the person manipulating the flight control of the small unmanned aircraft system must be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight in order to:

(1) Know the unmanned aircraft’s location;

(2) Determine the unmanned aircraft’s attitude, altitude, and direction of flight;

(3) Observe the airspace for other air traffic or hazards; and

(4) Determine that the unmanned aircraft does not endanger the life or property of another.

(B) Throughout the entire flight of the small unmanned aircraft, the ability described in paragraph (a) of this section must be exercised by either:

(1) The remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small unmanned aircraft system; or

(2) A visual observer.

Rationale

The intent is to prevent drone operators from interfering with other aircraft in flight or posing a hazard to people or property on the ground. These rules were a critical step toward normalizing the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the US national airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration recognized that drones were becoming a larger part of the airspace infrastructure due to commercial applications and a large recreational base. One of the goals was to delineate between commercial drone use and recreational or hobbyist use.

They needed to ensure a minimum set of knowledge standards for commercial drone pilots.

BVLOS regulations image

Also, there was a great need to provide regulations and rules for safe operations. Essentially they didn’t want drones crashing into planes, buildings, or people. Overall, these rules helped drones integrate into our national Aerospace.

So regulations like flying below 400 feet, maintaining visual line of sights, and giving the right of way to manned aerial vehicles are examples of some of the basic rules and regulations.

They also wanted a process for obtaining operational waivers when necessary. This was all intended to usher in the many drone applications that were on the horizon at that time.

What To Do If You Want BVLOS Operations

A key part of the FAA Part 107 is the process to apply for waivers. Each prohibition has its own waiver requirements.

Part 107 waiver list

Make no mistake, the waiver process is very involved and very complex. We’ve included a link to the FAA’s help document to get you started. Your application will have three basic parts.

Mission Justification

You will need to explain why using a drone to perform this task is the best or safest way of doing it. Using the drone may significantly reduce the cost of the operation, it may significantly improve worker safety, or may significantly reduce the time of the task. These typically are not very difficult to show because drones provide all of these advantages. Here’s part of an example waiver request.

image Example BVLOS waiver

Mission CONOPS

CONOPS stands for the concept of operations, if you’re in the military you know what this means. Essentially this describes all parts of your planned drone operation. The waiver requires detailed descriptions of the mission, the drone you intend to use, and the personnel. For example, you need to discuss the duration of the mission, show takeoff and landing locations, you need to provide the drone’s maximum flight time, and also pilot experience and certifications. These are just a few of the details that you need to provide.

Mission Risk Analysis

The mission risk analysis is the most difficult part of the waiver. You will need to discuss the risk of every portion of your mission, then you will need to provide detailed mitigation plans for each risk. After that, you still need to provide a post-mitigation risk analysis.

The waiver needs to be submitted online at the FAA Drone Zone.

image risk management

This documentation needs to be professionally written and presented, the reviewers will see the presentation and the format as an indication of how trustworthy and serious you are. We have found that any small error will result in rejection of your waiver. The good thing is that you can resubmit as many time as you like.

It is important to note for those of you in the Washington DC area like us, this is not the same process used to request a waiver to fly and restricted airspace. That is a different but equally challenging process.

The FAA says they will provide a 90-day turnaround time, but for our restricted flight waiver it typically takes less time than that. The reviewers are very thorough and very knowledgeable.

What To Do If You Lose Sight of Your Drone

Current remote control technology for drones extends for several miles. Unless you’re Superman this distance is much farther than your visual line of sight. So it’s possible you could be flying your drone and simply go beyond line of sight by mistake. It’s also possible you will fly behind some obstruction, like a building, and temporarily lose sight of your drone.

image looking for drone

If this happens don’t freak out there are several things you can do in response.

The most important thing is to be prepared. Have a mission response plan ready to go so you can take the right action when you lose sight of your drone.

If you lose sight of your drone unintentionally, the first thing to do is STOP. If you fly your drone in any direction without knowing where you are there is a danger that you’ll run into something.

image STOP

The next thing you can do is use your remote video to get a sense of where you are. If you have flown too far then simply rotary rotate the drone 360° and use the video on your remote control to try and find the direction to your location. If you fly behind the building the simple solution is to simply increase altitude until you can see your drone.

Lastly, you always have the return to home (RTH) option. If you hit the RTH button the drone will return to the home point which should be your location. This is why it’s always very important to update your home location if you move around. Make sure to set the RTH altitude high enough to avoid any obstructions in the area.

One very important tip from my own personal experience. If you’re using an intelligent flight mode, and you stop the mission or RTH, many applications will respond by simply landing the drone at its current location. Make very sure that you understand how your automated flight software will respond to RTH.

Penalties For Flying BVLOS

With many violations like flying over 400 feet or flying in a restricted space, it’s possible to check your flight logs to see what you did. But unless you crash, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to catch you flying beyond the line of site.

image getting caught in violation

But in the event that you do get caught, you should know that it is a civil violation and not a criminal violation. This means the cops won’t take you to jail. However, the FAA or the civil authorities may impose some fairly stiff penalties.

The penalties fall into one of two categories: certifications or fines. In the first category, you can get your pilot certification suspended or revoked, or you may even have your drone confiscated. In the second category, you’ll have to pay five. These fines are rarely less than $1000 and they can go upwards of five to $10,000.

We typically try to give you the benefit of our experience in these articles, however, I am happy to say in this instance we cannot. We do not have any experience with this type of thing.

image penalties and fines

How Are BVLOS Rules Changing?

You can expect current rules to change in the near future. In March 2022, the FAA created a group called the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) which was designed to suggest changes to Part 107 rules. The committee came up with several proposals for changes to the current Part 107 regulations.

The first and most important regulation for most drone pilots is that they intend to change the commercial certification exam. They proposed to have a new exam that would certify you for BVLOS operation. The exam will include practical hands-on training in addition to the written exam.

image exam study

Another important recommendation was the requirement on the drone itself, drones will have to pass certification in order to be flown beyond the line of site. This will include the ability to detect and avoid stationary objects and manned aircraft.

Why Are BVLOS Rules Changing?

The ARC report recommendations have a lot of words but to put it simply there are several stated reasons why they’re making these changes.

First, they recognize that drones will have huge applications for many industries which means there will be a lot of money involved. The FAA anticipate companies will begin to create their own regulations and the government wants to get ahead of it. The government needs to ensure they maintain control of the process and provide the needed infrastructure.

Second, the FAA understands the positive societal implication that drones can have for society by helping with law enforcement, emergency response, and disaster response, in addition to the many commercial applications. The FAA needs to expand rules and regulations to enable these use cases.

image drone package delivery

Based on our research, the BVLOS primary application will be drone transport. This includes transport packages or people. Part 107 changes are necessary because there are several fundamental restrictions that will impede this technology. However there are several other regulations, in addition to BVLOS, that will need to be changed.

The first restriction is that part 107 requires an on-site pilot to operate each drone. There is no allowance for autonomous drone flights. So the concept of a drone swarm delivering packages everywhere simply will not work under the existing regulations.

Part 107 does provide waiver processes for all of these problems, but the processes are very complicated.

Another important issue is the patchwork of local and state regulations. It’s prohibitive to track and comply with the many local regulations in each area.

So you can see that the BVLOS recommendations are just the first step in the process to enable future new drone applications.

Future of BVLOS

The FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee identifies a number of industries that will drive the future of BVLOS.

Logistics & Transport

Drones have the ability to revolutionize the logistics industry by enabling aerial transport of packages and potentially transport of people. Major companies like Amazon and Walmart, and public organizations like USPS have all applied and obtained approval for BVLOS flights to support package delivery.

A major potential business opportunity in this area is for third-party providers. The FAA is developing a process that supports third-party package delivery providers. This represents an example of a future BVLOS drone business that does not currently exist. These companies would provide local drone deployment centers or even mobile drone deployment centers to support last-mile package delivery.

image drones for agriculture

Agriculture

Drones are already used to support agricultural crop development and analysis. So BVLOS will extend existing services to support larger areas. Drones are used for spectral imaging of crops to identify problems, deploy materials, and track growth rates. BVLOS will allow drone missions to encompass wider areas with fewer support personnel. Potentially these missions can be automated where drones are kept on site in deployed periodically on automated pre-defined missions.

image drone for inspection

Inspection & nfrasturcture

Drones are already a significant part of the inspection and infrastructure industry. From cell towers and powerline inspection to construction site surveys, drone use cases have been proven. However, under current rules, each mission requires an on-site pilot. BVLOS will enable automated missions at predefined intervals without on-site pilots.

When combined with cloud-based data collection and analysis these types of missions will create powerful business models.

drone first response

Emergency Response

One important public use of drones is for emergency response. First responders use drones to assess damage or to support rescue/recovery operations. In these cases, it’s possible to pre-deploy drones before a known emergency and then deploy them remotely to perform needed tasks. The drones could fly predefined missions over high-risk areas. This is another potential business opportunity for third-party service providers to support the public good.

In the future, drone beyond visual line of sight operation is likely to become commonplace, as drone technology continues to develop. With drone beyond visual line of sight operation, the sky is literally the limit.

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Felton Flood, PhD

Felton Flood, PhD

Dr. Flood has 25+ years experience in telecommunications and is a veteran of several startups in Silicon Valley and Northern Virginia. In 2021 he co-founded Lightwave Aerial, applying machine learning and cloud technologies to innovate UAV services.

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