Hogan Lovells team assists Avitas Systems in effort to
move commercial UAS policy boundaries forward
Washington, D.C. – October 17, 2018 – Yesterday, Avitas Systems, a GE venture, announced that it was awarded a significant and precedent-setting permission from the FAA to operate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) over 55 pounds at low altitudes beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in Loving County, Texas for industrial inspection. Avitas Systems used AiRXOS’ waiver and exemption service for system design, safety mitigation, testing, analysis, and validation support in obtaining the BVLOS permission. Avitas Systems was also supported by Shell Air Transport – Americas. Partner Lisa Ellman and Senior Associate Matt Clark of Hogan Lovells assisted the team through the FAA exemption process.
The permission granted to Avitas Systems is unique in that it allows for BVLOS drone operations without the use of a visual observer. The exemption allows the company to operate its UAS BVLOS of the pilot in Texas’ Permian Basin for critical infrastructure inspections. The ability to operate in the Permian Basin is hugely important for Avitas Systems, and the BVLOS permission is just as significant for the commercial drone industry at large.
For the United States to properly capitalize on the full safety and efficiency benefits of drones, a workable regulatory framework that allows safe operations BVLOS of the pilot is necessary. Whether drones are being used to inspect oil and gas and other critical infrastructure in remote locations, respond to natural disasters like hurricanes, or deliver packages, companies need to be able to fly drones beyond the range of human sight. Under the current regulatory framework for commercial drone operations in the U.S. (Part 107), drone flights BVLOS of the pilot are prohibited without an approval from the FAA.
As of today, the FAA has issued 2,149 Part 107 waivers – but only 24 of them (or .011%) are BVLOS waivers (with a few additional BVLOS exemptions that have been approved). While the FAA and industry have referred to these previously-granted approvals as “BVLOS,” all of these approvals required the use of a visual observer or a second pilot to visually scan the airspace with their eyes to identify other aircraft that could create a collision hazard with the drone. This method is limited in its utility; it requires the use of more personnel on site, which can be expensive and impractical for many real-world drone operations that require long range flights, often in rural remote areas.
With Avitas Systems and AiRXOS’ success, the door is now open to the industry for true BVLOS operations without the requirement of a visual observer. Instead of having to rely on human eyes as the primary means of deconfliction with other aircraft, the FAA has authorized Avitas Systems to use a ground-based radar system to detect other aircraft flying at low altitudes near the area of operation. This is the first FAA-approved use of radar for civil BVLOS operations.
“Avitas Systems’ new permission represents a very important development for oil and gas safety, and for the commercial drone industry at large,” said Lisa Ellman, Chair of Hogan Lovells’ global UAS practice and Co-Executive Director, Commercial Drone Alliance. “The FAA’s willingness to approve BVLOS operations that rely on technology mitigations, like ground-based radar, as opposed to impractical operational mitigations like visual observers, is a strong step in the right direction as we seek to bring the safety and efficiency benefits of commercial drones to the American people.”
Allowing BVLOS operations is also a boon to transportation safety in the Permian Basin. According to 2018 statistics published by the Texas Department of Transportation, a vehicular fatality occurred every 37 hours across 16 counties in the Permian Basin for the first four months of 2018. UAS technology is valuable in helping address these numbers by reducing the number of hours that inspectors travel on a regular basis to perform surveillance activities in remote areas. The use of UAS technology also facilitates the fulfillment of critical safety and environmental goals of the oil and gas industry and government agencies.