DRONES | INNOVATION
BVLOS: The impact of autonomous drone flights on the UK economy
SenSat are the UK Government's Drone Infrastructure Pathfinder partner, working collaboratively to design and test safe operations of Beyond Visual Line of Sight
25.7.2018 // 7 minute read
UK Pathfinder program
The Pathfinder program was created by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2017 and consists of partnerships between the government and industry, in key sectors. SenSat was awarded pathfinder status to test and trial how drones can be used to develop new and existing services in the infrastructure industry.
SenSat hope to prove how BVLOS exemptions could cut
the price of drone data by up to 90%.
The standard air regulation in the UK currently allow operators to fly UAVs up to 500 meters away from their Remote Pilots. Known as ‘VLOS’ or Visual Line of Sight, these rules represent a regulatory barrier to UAV operators rather than a technical barrier. This is obvious, with even most consumer UAVs allowing stable flights 3km away from the pilot. Fortunately, the UK Government has recognised the need to let drones off their leash and has set about proposing new laws that unlock the economic potential of drones in UK Industry by flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight (or “BVLOS”).
In recent years, few technologies have evolved faster than that of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). There is no doubt that the commercialisation of drones is taking off (so to speak...). There are a variety of ways that drones can entirely transform traditional industries - whether it’s mapping and surveying or logistics. For industries that traditionally rely on labour intensive manual processes, UAVs offer a myriad of opportunities to increase profits and improve efficiency in many innovative ways.
The aim of the program is to prove the safe operation of drones in UK airspace, at distances greater than 500m or ‘Beyond the Visual Line of Sight’. In doing so, the program will ultimately help guide changes to UK law, with the aim of overcoming the regulatory barriers that we see holding back drone technologies today.
By removing these barriers the Pathfinder program aims to allow UK businesses to scale Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights, so they become ‘business as usual’. This will help unlock potential economic benefits of up to £42bn per year. SenSat has been granted special regulatory exemptions to fly up to 12 km away from the Remote Pilot, allowing its drones to save its clients up to 60% in areas such as surveying, mapping, and other applications.
Record-breaking BVLOS flight
Last month, SenSat successfully completed the UK’s first BVLOS flight over UK mainland, which represents a real step forward for the industry. The test flight, carried out in East Sussex, signifies the start of the test phase for the Pathfinder project, with further BVLOS operations planned in Q3 2018. During these tests, SenSat will be operating over the UK’s largest infrastructure projects.
Future of BVLOS
The significant cost and time savings, as well as the reduced need for ‘boots on the ground’, achieved through BVLOS, can help various sectors in the UK by improving operational efficiency and safety, whilst boosting the UK’s economy.
Linear Asset inspection & maintenance
One of the key sectors to benefit from BVLOS capabilities is utilities and infrastructure, where long-distance flights are crucial for operational efficiency. PwC estimates that “the global market in drone-powered solutions for the power and utilities industries is worth as much as US$9.46 billion a year”.
There are currently two main methods for gathering information about the thousands of kilometres of utility lines around the globe:
Manned Survey or Inspection - Slow, expensive and dangerous
Helicopters - Fast but tremendously bad for the environment
Inspections, carried out by manual workers, often take weeks, traveling along the length of the asset, often in hazardous environments. The alternative is to fly a helicopter along the route, which carries its own risks and is far more hazardous to the environment.
BVLOS flying is likely to result in drones replacing more expensive helicopters and manned surveys. According to PwC “combined with the use of LiDAR to precisely calculate critical 3D parameters such as vegetation encroachment and conductor sag height on powerlines, the impact of technology convergence will be significant”.
The UK is leading the way in drone regulation, with the aim of helping industry utilise the huge benefits the technology can offer. The Pathfinder program is laying the foundations of what will be the norm in years to come, by testing BVLOS operations across several different sectors. Through the program, a wide range of businesses are set to benefit from the significant cost and time savings that drones can offer them when allowed to operate at their technical limits.
The economic benefits that BVLOS operations can generate should not be underestimated, as the initial findings from SenSat’s BVLOS trials show. As drone technology improves, these benefits and the number of potential applications will only grow. In the coming 18 months, SenSat will continue to test and improve the safety of BVLOS operations with the aim of carrying out regular missions for its clients around the UK and abroad.
SenSat hope to prove how BVLOS exemptions could cut the price of drone data by up to 90% for the industry. This, in turn, allows UK infrastructure company asset owners to utilise aerial data more frequently supporting better and more efficient decision making - in turn reducing costs and improving quality.
To give an example, surveying High Speed 2 (HS2), a £56bn rail project connecting London to Birmingham, would typically have required 470 individual drone flights. With BVLOS flights being made possible, the same project could be completed in just 7. This represents an increase in efficiency of up to 7000%.