Flights just north of Farmville, Virginia, on Tuesday and Wednesday represented a major step forward for the unmanned aircraft industry by helping demonstrate that longer-range flights critical for the technology's commercial practicality can be carried out safely and effectively.
The operation, conducted by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, Ligado Networks, AeroVironment, Inc., and Dominion Virginia Power evaluated communications strategies and other parameters to help build a safety case for unmanned aircraft flights beyond the visual line of sight of a pilot or observer.
Current regulations for unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, prohibit these flights unless a specific waiver is granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which controls the nation’s public airspace. However, many commercial applications for UAS will need beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations to be viable from a business perspective.
U.S. Senator Mark Warner attended the second day of the operation.
“Unmanned systems are going to open up new avenues for economic growth and improve our quality of life, in Virginia and across the country. We’re working hard to unlock their potential, and what we’ve seen today is that strong partnerships generate game-changing solutions,” said Warner. “These flights demonstrate that when expert researchers and innovative companies come together, we can break new ground. I'm excited to build on this success as Virginia continues its leadership in the development of unmanned systems.”
Flying unmanned aircraft safely beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight requires a reliable communications link. At the low altitudes where unmanned aircraft typically fly, maintaining communications over long distances is especially challenging.
Using satellite signals to communicate with and control the aircraft is one promising option. For these tests, the aircraft was controlled using a satellite communications package from Ligado Networks.
“Ligado is planning to deploy an advanced satellite-terrestrial network that will offer unprecedented performance for the emerging 5G and industrial internet of things markets, and commercial unmanned systems are well-positioned to use our technology to serve core industries,” said Tamara Casey, Ligado Network’s chief technology officer.
“Thanks to Virginia Tech, we are fortunate to have an FAA-approved unmanned aircraft test site in our home state, and today’s demonstration with Virginia Tech, AeroVironment and Dominion Virginia Power showed how our best-in-class technology can serve critical American infrastructure and improve safety. Assurance of this kind of continued mission-critical connectivity will unlock all the possibilities enabled by beyond visual line-of-sight capabilities for our country while also ensuring that U.S. airspace remains the world’s safest as unmanned systems are integrated,” Casey said.
In these tests, the aircraft flew along a power line. Routine power-line inspections are ideal tasks for unmanned aircraft, which can use onboard sensors to check for potential problems, boosting efficiency and improving worker safety. In addition, because air traffic is already restricted near power lines, the airspace around them is naturally shielded from possible encounters with other aircraft.
“Unmanned aircraft flying beyond the visual line of sight can give us the ability to inspect our infrastructure without actually having to access each structure,” said Steve Eisenrauch, Dominion Virginia Power’s manager of electric transmission forestry and line services. “Today we do it with helicopters; using unmanned aircraft would be much more cost-effective, and going beyond line of sight allows us to inspect big sections of line at a time.”
The aircraft itself, a fixed-wing vehicle known as the Puma, is manufactured by AeroVironment, Inc. Its long endurance — it can fly for more than three hours per battery charge — makes it well-suited for inspecting miles of power lines. In addition to Ligado’s satellite communications package, the Puma is also equipped with optical and infrared cameras that can gather data during power-line inspections and other applications.
“The opportunity for unmanned aircraft systems, such as our proven Puma AE, to survey utility infrastructure, digitize crops, protect property, and enhance safety is vast and untapped,” said Kirk Flittie, AeroVironment vice president and general manager of its Unmanned Aircraft Systems business segment. “Demonstrating beyond visual line-of-sight operations in a safe and controlled manner using Ligado Networks’ leading satellite communication capabilities will help public and private stakeholders visualize a future in which unmanned aircraft systems can help increase productivity, reduce costs, enhance responsiveness, and create good, new jobs in Virginia and across the nation.”
During the operation, the aircraft flew a maximum distance of more than 14 miles along the power line, beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot; however, in keeping with FAA regulations, the aircraft remained in sight of a helicopter-borne observer at all times.
HAZON Solutions, a Virginia Beach-based UAS services provider and long-term partner of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, also contributed to the success of the tests by providing chase aircraft services for down-range operations and safety management support on the ground.
The flights build on research conducted last summer. In this year’s tests, the use of a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with satellite communications technology brings the operation closer to real conditions during a true beyond-visual-line-of-sight operation. This realistic scenario strengthens the safety case for infrastructure inspections and other UAS applications.
“Beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations are key to enabling realistic commercial applications for unmanned aircraft,” said Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which operates the university’s Federal Aviation Administration-designated UAS test site. “But we have to make the case that they can be done safely, and collaborative operations like this are what can really move the needle. This is what we do at the test site: help bring together the best partners in the industry to enable an operation that could truly revolutionize the future of unmanned aircraft.”
The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership is headquartered at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech.