Flying Drones Beyond Line of Sight: How Can You Mitigate Risks?

PrecisionHawk has released a report outlining the operational risks for flying drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the pilot. The company, a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Pathfinder program, has determined that technology assistance is critical to make the safety case for BVLOS flights.

The research is part of phase two of the company’s efforts in the Pathfinder program, which the FAA rolled out last year to facilitate the early introduction of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into national airspace.

Specifically, the phase two report identifies the risks associated with the visual detection of an incoming aircraft and the ability for a drone operator to make a safety decision when he or she is operating BVLOS.

“While we believed that technology would be useful for flying BVLOS, we needed a quantitative answer as to whether it would simply make the user’s life easier or it actually impacted the safety of the operation,” explains Dr. Allison Ferguson, director of airspace research at PrecisionHawk. “The FAA needs a clear understanding of the risks associated with advanced drone operations, and this testing sets a visual baseline to measure the level of safety as we add enabling technologies.”

In August, both PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway earned the right to commercially operate drones BVLOS. Both companies are part of the FAA’s Pathfinder program.

PrecisionHawk’s phase two testing took place in North Carolina and Kansas with a large group of both FAA-certified pilots and non-pilots who were asked to make decisions while flying a drone BVLOS.

Under the research, when a manned aircraft was introduced into the airspace, participants were asked to both detect the intruder and choose from a series of actions to avoid a potential collision.

The research measured a wide variety of environmental and human factors that could impact both the detection and decision-making process, including light, weather, visual obstructions, and participant hearing and visual acuity, says PrecisionHawk.

Participants were also asked a series of questions before, during and after the field operation to evaluate qualitative factors such as stress, boredom and fatigue.

According to PrecisionHawk, analysis of the collected data shows that pilots were generally able to detect an intruding aircraft from further away than a non-pilot could.

In contrast, the decision-making process of both groups – as measured by their reaction times and collision-avoidance choices – was nearly the same. In the majority of cases, the participants made a choice to lower the aircraft to loiter at its existing location, as opposed to returning the drone home to either land or loiter.

“A key takeaway of phase two is that there is always going to be variation when we rely exclusively on unassisted human ability to mitigate risk,” adds Ferguson. “Situational awareness technology can help make that operation more consistent over more of the population – which, in turn, makes any risk prediction easier and more realistic.”

PrecisionHawk’s Pathfinder phase one report, released in August, outlined the boundaries and conditions of extended visual line of sight operations for a solo pilot in command. Phase three testing, which will evaluate technologies that can be used to enhance safety, including PrecisionHawk’s LATAS drone safety platform, is set to begin in January.

“It’s not about taking humans out of the loop,” concludes Ferguson. “It’s about letting technology do what it is designed to do: freeing up humans to do what humans are good at, like flexible decision-making.”
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