Shortly after President Trump signed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 on October 5, which among other initiatives calls for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop regulations to permit unmanned aircraft system (UAS or drone) flight Beyond the Visual Line of Sight of its operator, on October 16 the FAA issued a first-of-its-kind permit for Avitas Systems, a GE venture specializing in custom inspection systems for the oil, gas, electric power and transportation industries, to operate a large, 55+ pound heli-drone in Loving County, Texas. What makes this FAA action so unique is that the UAS will be operated BVLOS without a second human observer on the ground as required by current commercial drone regulations (Part 107), relying instead upon ground-based radar to detect and avoid other aircraft in the UAS’s operational airspace.
According to Avitas Systems, the heli-drone will be operated in a remote area of West Texas for Shell Oil Company to perform inspection services using sophisticated sensors to monitor infrastructure and detect leaks and other conditions requiring attention or repair. The Permian Basin in West Texas is spotted with well pads that are separated by rough terrain, making it more arduous and costly for in-person site visits. The UAS will perform an industrial inspection at low altitude, which will collect and transmit data quicker, leading to faster repairs and more efficient operations with a smaller environmental footprint.
The application of Avitas Systems’ technology also goes well beyond oil and gas inspections. A multitude of U.S. companies in different industries are waiting in line for the technology and regulatory approvals to deploy drones BVLOS in a variety of uses—parcel delivery, disaster response, food delivery, etc. As of today, the FAA has granted over 2,100 waivers under Part 107, of which only 24 are for UAS operations BVLOS. But this is the first such action by the FAA to permit BVLOS flight with just one operator—the remote pilot—replacing the visual human observer with a technology-based solution, radar, to detect other aircraft and avoid collisions.
The door opened by the FAA with this action will undoubtedly spur the further refinement of existing and future technologies to replace the ‘second’ person-observer and lead to substantially more waiver requests (and permissions), consistent with congressional objectives in the FAA Reauthorization Act. Eventually, the FAA will expand the regulatory frontier to permit more technologically-advanced drone operations like this one provided they ensure the safe integration of single-operator drones (and even fully-automated drone operations) in the national airspace system.
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Andrew Zimmitti is a complex commercial litigator, certificated private pilot and leader of Manatt’s unmanned aircraft (UA) practice. Manatt’s UA practice brings together a cross-disciplinary group of attorneys with a broad range of experience to assist clients with commercial UA operational and ownership concerns. As an emerging technology, the commercial use of drones presents unique legal challenges and opportunities that manufacturers, operators and owners must consider. Understanding and adapting to this rapidly changing legal and regulatory landscape is essential. Manatt’s practice team brings together the expertise, insight and legal services needed to successfully navigate in this growing industry.