PrecisionHawk, with offices in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Toronto, Ontario, participated in an FAA “Pathfinder” program begun in 2015 to test and validate methods for operating in “extended visual line of sight,” a euphemistic description assigned to these early trial missions flown with an unmanned aircraft beyond the operator’s visual range. The work done to date by PrecisionHawk is only the beginning of drones venturing out of their pilot's direct line of sight within the National Airspace System.
“Under Pathfinder, PrecisionHawk has been able to research and understand the complexities of operating in EVLOS, which we have shared with the FAA to help specify and shape the requirements for doing it safely,” said Thomas Haun, executive vice president at PrecisionHawk, in the announcement. “Large agribusiness fields, forests, mining operations, public utilities and other rural industries are examples of where extended operations are needed, and to accommodate the growing demand, PrecisionHawk has been actively exploring operational and technology solutions to meet this need.”
PrecisionHawk is far from alone in studying applications for small unmanned aircraft (weighing less than 55 pounds) to which Part 107 applies. A collaboration organized by NASA is scheduled to begin a new phase of a multiyear plan in October, testing beyond-line-of-sight technologies over sparsely populated areas; also, the FAA Center of Excellence for UAS Research, which is also known as the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE), announced on Aug. 30 a collaboration between PrecisionHawk and Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus for ongoing research that will inform future updates to federal aviation regulations.
“You should expect that this will continue to evolve,” Huerta said of unmanned aircraft operating beyond line of sight.
Using cellular networks to allow remote pilots flying with both feet on the ground to exchange information in real time with their counterparts in the air appears almost certain to be at least a portion of the risk mitigation strategy employed as drones fly beyond sight in increasing numbers. PrecisionHawk’s LATAS system has much in common with the fundamental approach taken by a European collaboration called “Safer Together,” which is a partnership between drone maker senseFly and Air Navigation, which produces EFB applications used by pilots in Europe.
Ben Marcus is CEO of AirMap, a company based in Santa Monica, California, that has been working toward many of the same goals—information sharing among pilots and airspace safety chief among these. Marcus said he followed the “Safer Together” initiative and met the creators in Switzerland.
“I’m really excited about what they’re doing there,” Marcus said in a recent telephone interview. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and has flown and owned a range of aircraft, including helicopters that are among the aircraft most likely to inhabit lower altitudes used by unmanned aircraft.
Marcus said AirMap also has opened a traffic alert service available for the online and mobile platform, and allows remote pilots (the FAA term for pilots more commonly known as drone pilots or drone operators) to subscribe to a traffic alert service that uses Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast data to alert unmanned pilots ahead of potential conflicts. Marcus said the company is working with collaborators to introduce a more comprehensive service, bringing live drone activity data into the manned aircraft cockpit (probably not all activity into every cockpit).
“The question becomes, to which manned aircraft pilots is information about drone activity most important?” Marcus said. Cellular networks have long been a focus of research. “Generally those pilots are flying at very low altitude and often have a very good cell connection in their cockpit.”
Marcus said AirMap plans to eventually support real-time, mutual awareness of positions and vectors for both manned and unmanned operators, regardless of the type of equipment they are operating or which brands of software or hardware they use. While PrecisionHawk and others developing new systems have largely kept their technology proprietary, Marcus has been offering AirMap developer kits to software authors everywhere, and engaging drone manufacturers as well in hope that AirMap will become a standard conduit for information between pilots of all types of aircraft operating at low altitudes.