FAA approvals ‘crucial step’ on road to commercial BVLOS operations


The FAA has issued its first ever approval for commercial beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations, in what has been described as a “crucial step” for the large drone sector.

The approval comes off the back of requests to the FAA by four companies — Phoenix Air Unmanned, uAvionix, UPS Flight Forward and Zipline — to conduct BVLOS drone operations at 400ft or below. After a request for public comment closed in June, the FAA has now approved these firms to begin operating.

“This first ever issued civil BVLOS approval for an uncrewed helicopter of that size in the US is going to unlock that market for commercial operations, particularly in the domain of long-range critical infrastructure inspections,” Ulrich Amberg, CEO, SwissDrones (the OEM supplying Phoenix Air Unmanned with its SDO 50 V2 aircraft) told Revolution.Aero. The firm already has some FAA airworthiness approvals including for flight tests and demonstrations, its aircraft also has an ’N’ tail number.

“Whilst this does mean we are set for growth in the large drone sector, especially in critical infrastructure inspection, it is not that simple,” explained Amberg. “It is not the same as manned aviation, where you have either type certification, then you’re rubber-stamped to do whatever you want with that aircraft, or no flight approval at all.” With large drones it is a staggered approach, the EASA drone framework includes an operational risk assessment methodology (SORA) to allow for certain flight missions to be approved without a need for certification of the UAV. That assessment delivers an outcome which tells you at which risk level you are approvable through a combination of your capability as an operator combined with the technical features of the aircraft.

“This is a clever approach because it allows the whole industry to go about this in a step-by-step approach. Rather than saying either you get type certified or you don’t fly at all, which would basically kill the whole industry because getting a type certificate as per manned aviation standards is something that will cost you 8 to 9 figure $ amounts. Not many OEMs would ever get that money back from UAV sales.”

The US approach to approve heavy drone operations so far has been based on the principles for traditional manned aviation , said Amberg. “The FAA is still in the process of working out regulation for heavy drones. It is called Part 108 and will extend the Part 107 for small drones. But it is not there yet.” So today’s operators have to file petitions to be exempt from what is basically a ban. The approval issued by the FAA for Phoenix Air Unmanned is an exemption under the FAA’s Part 91 rules. “Not unfortunately part of a systematic framework as seen in Europe and many other countries around the world,” he added.

With approvals to perform commercial BVLOS operations in over 30 countries, SwissDrones is no stranger to regulatory processes. Operator certificates and BVLOS flight approvals for SwissDrones unmanned helicopters have been issued for all EASA countries – essentially including all of Europe – as well as in Canada, Australia, and various Asian countries, according to Amberg.

“For the last four years — aside from the R&D, early market testing and product development — we have been focusing on the regulatory developments. We have included those requirements to inform the product development process of our helicopters. Also, the operating procedures and all other documentation needs to come along with that. This has placed us pretty much at the front-end of the crowd. It is not just coming, we have approvals to fly in all these countries around the world today,” he said.

There are two main regulatory bodies in aviation globally. The FAA and EASA — which covers 31 countries in Europe. Around two years ago, EASA implemented an entire drone regulation framework that has been ratified by all EASA-member countries.

There are multiple ways to get approvals under EASA rules. In a nutshell, you can apply for individual flight approvals for every flight mission, but that requires the need to provide all documentation for each and every mission. “This is not a viable option for a commercial business, because of the workload and the required lead time to obtain flight approvals, which can be multiple months. But that is what is out there now and it is creating quite a lot of work for regulatory authorities who are receiving thousands of these applications,” said Amberg.

The other pathway, known as the Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC), requires applying for delegated authority to approve your own flights. “This then means you are acting on behalf of civil aviation authorities and they delegate the right for you to do so as an operator. This is the most far-reaching and difficult approval to obtain and is very similar to an AOC [air operator certificate] found in manned aviation,” said Amberg.

David Spurlock, managing director, DiamondStream Partners is an investor in SwissDrones and advocate for the commercial large drone sector. He told Revolution.Aero: “We are on a walk into the future of which the end is unclear. There remain many questions around aspects like safety and public interest… do we end up with the Jetsons and thousands of drones flying overhead. I don’t think we will. But on the other side of that scale there is a definite public interest and this is where companies like SwissDrones can help to achieve that.”

Focusing on search and rescue, firefighting and infrastructure inspection use cases feeds directly into the public interest case, explained Spurlock. Pointing to the growth in size and construction tempo of major infrastructure seen over the past century, there is a need for suitable means to be able to inspect this infrastructure. “That is not possible or inefficient to do from the ground. It is also very expensive to do so with traditional manned aviation. Therefore making it much more effective to do with a drone.

“There is so much potential to improve society by choosing the right first places to allow unmanned flight and infrastructure inspection seems like the perfect fit for solving real-world problems that exist today. This approval is a very important moment for the sector,” added Spurlock.

View the full approval publication via the FAA website.