The U.K.'s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has given the go ahead to local startup sees.ai, which is developing a beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) command & control solution to aid data capture for industrial use-cases, to trial a concept for routine BVLOS operations -- the first such authorization for a U.K. company, the regulator said today.
The test is taking place under a sandbox program announced back in May 2019 -- directing government funding and regulatory support to R&D in the drone space -- initially through virtual testing, such as of avoid and detect systems.
Sees.ai, an early participant in the sandbox, has now secured authorization to trial a concept for routine BVLOS operations at three (physical) sites without needing to pre-authorise each flight.
The Techstars-backed startup is focused on drone operations in industrial settings -- building tech to scale the use of drones for inspection and maintenance purposes in industries, such as the oil & gas sector, by enabling pilots to remote-control craft from a central location, rather than needing to be on site for each flight.
But it's clear BVLOS capabilities will be essential for other uses of drone tech -- such as delivery -- hence the CAA calling the trial "a significant step forward for the drone industry".
"By testing the concept in industrial environments for inspection, monitoring and maintenance purposes, sees.ai aims to prove the safety of its system within this context initially, before extending it to address increasingly challenging missions over time," it added.
Under current U.K. rules, drone operators must keep their aircraft within line of sight and follow the country's drone code -- unless they have specific permissions to do otherwise.
One company that previously gained such permission was U.S. tech giant Amazon -- which started testing BVLOS delivery drones in the U.K. back in 2016 -- and continues to work on bringing a commercial drone delivery service to market, under its Prime Air brand.
Amazon's effort has already been years in the making (it's been running experiments since 2013) -- and last year the FT, citing a Prime Air source, reported that it still remains "years" out from realizing the goal of drone deliveries at scale. So while (another) U.K. trial of BVLOS drone tech is being lauded as a significant development for the industry by the regulator, any Brits expecting drone deliveries in the wild anytime soon are likely to be disappointed.
The CAA authorization for the sees.ai trial will enable the BVLOS test flights to operate under 150 ft -- initially requiring an observer to remain in visual line of sight with the aircraft and be able to communicate with the remote pilot if necessary, per the regulator.
So, technically then, the trials will begin as extended-line-of-sight (EVLOS), which still entail limits versus true BVLOS -- enabling drone flights to operate further than 500 metres from the remote pilot (by deploying flight observers) but not removing on-site observers entirely, as is the ultimate industry goal. Update: The CAA confirmed the intention is to remove the observer once/if the trials prove the concept works. It also said the trial differs from traditional EVLOS flying because the spotter does not need to be in constant contact with the pilot -- they only need the ability to contact the pilot if required.
In a regulatory roadmap published last fall the CAA wrote that many steps are required to arrive at the sought-for situation of BVLOS being "business as usual" in non-segregated airspace -- so there still looks to be a long road ahead before commercial drones will be able to legally whiz around gathering data (or delivering stuff) far from any humans in the loop.
"The long-term aspiration of operators is for BVLOS operations to be a routine part of business across the UK. This vision requires a significant volume of evidence, experience and learning by everyone involved. There will inevitably be a need for innovators and the CAA to build, test, learn and repeat in small steps to work towards the vision," the CAA roadmap notes.
Commenting on sees.ai's trial authorization in a statement, CEO John McKenna dubbed it a "significant milestone", adding: "We are accelerating towards a future where drones fly autonomously at scale -- high up alongside manned aviation and low down inside our industrial sites, suburbs and cities. Securing this UK-first permission is a major step on this journey which will deliver big benefits to society across public health & safety, efficiency and environmental impact."