The past month or so has been a big one for the state of American drones — and more specifically those that fly beyond the operator’s line of sight (BVLOS). Since August 24, 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted BVLOS approval to four companies, allowing them to operate select drones without a visual observer watching the drone’s every move.
Two of the companies, Zipline and UPS Flight Forward, intend to use its BVLOS approvals to conduct drone package deliveries. And to have two companies with such authorizations is a huge deal for the drone delivery industry, which has had its eyes on drone delivery for more than a decade now ever since stories of Tacocopters and Jeff Bezos’s Amazon package delivery promises were told.
But for the past decade (and, well, longer) even the most advanced long-range drone deliveries in the U.S. have required visual observers who are stationed on the ground along a route. Their job is to watch the sky during long-range drone operations.
“This historic decision will help enable broad integration of autonomous aircraft into the U.S. national airspace and make commercial drone delivery scalable and affordable,” according to a statement from Zipline around the BVLOS approval news.
Still though, the four authorizations have certain limitations, such as that drones can only fly up to a specific altitude or cannot fly in densely populated areas. But still, it’s a big win for each of the four companies that have scored such an approval. And those four companies are:
- Phoenix Air Unmanned: Authorized on Aug. 24, 2023 to operate SwissDrones SVO 50 V2 drones
- UPS Flight Forward: Authorized on Sept. 6, 2023 to operate Matternet M2
- uAvionix: Authorized on Sept. 6, 2023 to operate Rapace with the Vantis Network
- Zipline: Authorized on Sept. 18, 2023 to operate its Sparrow drone
So what are those stipulations? They vary, but for example, Phoenix Air Unmanned, which was the first in the batch to achieve such approvals for its work in aerial photography, survey and powerline and pipeline patrol and inspection operations, is only cleared to conduct BVLOS flights below 400 feet altitude over certain roads and sparsely populated areas below pre-planned flight paths.
And it wasn’t easy to even get that BVLOS approval in the first place. For example, Zipline says it has had to work closely with the FAA to show rigorous testing of its onboard perception system, its robust safety processes, and provided detailed data from its commercial autonomous flights.
For what it’s worth, this won’t be the first time these companies fly BVLOS, period. Many other governments have been far more lenient than the FAA and have long allowed pilots to send the drone past their (or their visual observer’s) vantage point. Zipline, which started its operations in a handful of African countries and has since expanded to other mostly-developing countries, says it has been flying safely without visual observers in other countries as far as 140 miles round trip for many years now.
Other companies that have already been conducting BVLOS flights outside the U.S., but have not earned FAA authorization (at least not yet) include California-based drone maker Skydio, which in June 2023 received approval from the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) to remotely fly drones using Skydio Dock and Remote Ops beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
Why these four companies are critical for the future of BVLOS drone flights
The approvals come after a public comment period that kicked off in May 2023, in which the FAA sought public input on the specific requests of those four companies to conduct BVLOS drone operations at or below 400 feet.
And now that the comment period is closed and those four companies have received authorizations, the four companies will now be able to conduct flights that in theory benefit a multitude of players. Clients can benefit from such flights, whether it’s average Jane’s receiving drone deliveries, or major power companies able to conduct more robust inspections. And the FAA will benefit because — as part of the approvals — those four companies will need to provide data to the FAA which will then inform the agency’s ongoing policy and rulemaking activities.
Of those companies, the one that might touch perhaps the most people is Zipline’s drone deliveries. Its approvals enable it to deliver commercial packages around Salt Lake City and Bentonville, Arkansas, using drones that fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight.
The drone in use is the company’s Sparrow drone, which the company publicly refers to as a Zip. Zips gently release packages to the ground via parachute as the drone continues flying overhead. Each Zip is equipped with an onboard detect and avoid system that has been tested and proven to enable continuous, real-time airspace monitoring. A system of more than 500 preflight safety checks, redundant flight-critical systems, an onboard perception system using ADS-B transponders to identify nearby aircraft, plus an acoustic avoidance system, all add up to a drone that is, in theory, safer than cars. The company says it has not had a single major safety incident.
What other companies are conducting BVLOS drone operations in the U.S.
Besides these four companies, there have been only a few other truly BVLOS operations in the U.S.
Examples of those include a project conducted through the Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) Program under the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities. The ARROW Program was designed enable remote communities to use drones to conduct BVLOS missions that collect critical data, intended to be shared in a statewide GIS databased that will be used in response to natural and man-made disasters affecting critical infrastructure. That program leverages the existing FAA BEYOND Program (of which the University of Alaska-Fairbanks is a partner).
Another example is a BVLOS waiver granted in May 2023 to Percepto, which enables employees of Percepto to operate the company’s own autonomous drones at any critical infrastructure site in the U.S. — all without requiring them to be at the actual site. It also eliminates any requirements to use ground-based or airborne detect and avoid (DAA) systems, which can be cumbersome.
Prior to that, Percepto in early 2022 received FAA approval to conduct BVLOS drone operations for Delek US Holdings’ refineries located in both Tyler, Texas and El Dorado, Arkansas — making for the first BVLOS drone flights of U.S. oil refineries. Not long after, American Robo added seven additional sites of operation approved American Robotics to conduct BVLOS operations in those areas for its customers, which include Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Stockpile Reports.
What’s next for drones given the BVLOS approval news?
The FAA says it truly wants to make BVLOS operations routine, scalable and economically viable, and has said that it is working to develop standard rules that would make that possible.
“The FAA’s long-term goal is to safely integrate drones into the National Airspace System rather than set aside separate airspace exclusively for drones,” according to a prepared statement from the FAA.
The FAA took a fairly major step in June 2021 when it charted its Beyond Visual Line of Sight Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which was developed so members could provide safety recommendations to the FAA. The FAA is currently in the process of reviewing the BVLOS final report.
And for the four companies that have gained such authorizations, they’re likely to become even bigger. Zipline already is considered the world’s largest drone delivery company, having flown more than 50 million commercial autonomous miles and completed more than 750,000 commercial deliveries
“We applaud the FAA for taking a major step to integrate autonomous drone delivery into the airspace,” said Okeoma Moronu, Zipline’s Head of Global Aviation Regulatory Affairs. “The FAA has incredibly high safety standards. This will enable more commerce, new economic opportunities and greater access for millions of Americans.”