GE Venture OK’d for Beyond Line of Sight Drone Use with Radar


Avitas Systems, a GE venture, has received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to fly a large unmanned aircraft system (UAS) beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator in Loving County, Texas.

The permission authorizes Avitas Systems to fly a UAS over 55 pounds at low altitudes without a visual observer for industrial inspections.

According to Brad Tomer, interim CEO of Avitas Systems, it represents “the first FAA-approved civil use of BVLOS with radar.” Tomer notes that the company collaborated with Shell on the use case, location and demonstration of how drone technology “can improve industrial operational efficiency and safety.”

“The FAA provided the necessary feedback to enable our team to design a system that safely meets the aviation regulatory requirements,” he says. “And we had system design, safety, test, analysis and validation support from AiRXOS, also a GE venture company.”

According to Avitas Systems, the extended range of BVLOS operations allows for safer and more efficient monitoring of critical industrial infrastructure, including well pads separated by rough terrain in the Permian Basin in West Texas. Further, better turn-around of inspection data can lead to better cost efficiencies and faster facility repairs compared to traditional methods, which include driving to each individual inspection site.

“Drones are already an integral part of Shell’s digital operations, with missions flown daily across our global footprint,” says Bruce Culpepper, U.S. country chair for Shell. “Now, with the FAA’s approval and with the assistance of Avitas Systems, we can fly over a larger area of our Permian Basin operations to conduct aerial monitoring of our oil and gas infrastructure. This includes leak detection and data gathering needed to make more efficient operational decisions, which will result in improved environmental performance with less strain on road infrastructure in the Permian Basin. This is a tremendous achievement made possible through collaboration with the FAA, GE, Avitas Systems and Shell and represents the future of drone-based surveillance technology in the U.S.”

Avitas Systems notes it integrates pilot-in-the-loop safety measures, using trailer-mounted radar, to ensure enhanced situational awareness during flights. The UAS’ sensors upload live streams of inspection data in real time to the Avitas Systems platform for review and analysis.

“We received the FAA’s permission due to our systematic approach of using airspace management with a unique combination of proven UAS radar and communications technologies, which demonstrate that safety is our top priority,” says Michael Clatworthy, director of flight operations for Avitas Systems. “This is the first step in our approach to larger-scale BVLOS inspection operations.”

Avitas Systems filed its petition for a grant of exemption pursuant to Section 2210 of the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 and Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, with the support of AiRXOS and Shell Air Transport – Americas.

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