Autonomy breakthrough: FAA waiver issued for commercial BVLOS flights using Skydio dock

It was only a matter of time: The FAA has issued its approval for beyond visual line of sight flights using Skydio drones in conjunction with a Skydio dock. This is a major step on the road to completely autonomous remote drone operations – one that opens up a wide range of new use-case scenarios.

The news came in a blog post on the Skydio website – and it’s very significant. The FAA has given the green light for BNSF Railway to remotely operate dock-based Skydio drones. The blog says “it is the first national approval of remote, dock-based operations in the United States.”

And that’s a pretty big deal.

Docking station

In addition to its other products, Skydio has created a dock solution that can serve as a home base for a drone. The Skydio 2 (or Skydio X2) can take off from and land on a base that provides it with charging capabilities, as well as a safe harbor from inclement weather. That’s pretty cool. But it’s also a technology that enables a wide variety of use-case scenarios. These include automated inspections of construction sites or critical infrastructure, remote dispatch from across town or across the country – all without a human being having to physically be on site to operate the drone.

The approval actually came today from the FAA, says the blog. And we’re willing to bet it will be the first of many.

Sliding platform

The dock itself looks a little bit like a toaster oven. It features a sliding platform that extends for takeoff and landing, then retracts for the drone to recharge in its protected enclave. The company teased it with this video back in 2019:

We want one of these. So many uses….

Super useful tool

Think about this for a second. Regularly programmed flights for inspection, mapping, and more could be completely hands-off, with an operator monitoring the progress of the mission remotely. No need for a pilot on site (providing you have the FAA’s blessing). And that’s the key thing here: The FAA has given its blessing to using the system for commercial operations. Previous approvals for what many call “drone-in-a-box” solutions have been for R&D and proof-of-concept purposes.

This time around, it’s for real. BNSF will be dispatching Skydio drones from these docks for inspection purposes. We cannot emphasize enough what a step this is, as the drone sector pushes inexorably toward a future that increasingly relies on AI and automation – and less on human operators pushing sticks. Think of the doors this opens for First Responders, law enforcement, Enterprise users, researchers – the potential here is phenomenal.

BNSF

It’s the largest railway in the United States, and it’s also been an early adopter of drones. It created its drone program in 2014, and a year later carried out the first civil beyond visual line of sight flight in the US. Since then, the company has logged some 28,000 miles of BVLOS flights – an absolutely stunning figure. In its blog, Skydio offers up kudos to both BNSF and the Federal Aviation Administration:

Skydio applauds BNSF for its leadership and unsurpassed commitment to safety and innovation. We also applaud the FAA. We believe the FAA deserves far more credit than it often receives from the drone industry. This approval – likely the most advanced operation of small drones in the history of the United States – vividly demonstrates the FAA’s commitment to facilitating the safe and effective integration of drones into the national airspace system. When presented with a compelling safety case, the right technology, and an operator with an outstanding track record of safety (like BNSF), the FAA is willing to enable the advanced operations necessary to unlock the full potential of drones to make our world more productive, creative, and safe.

Obtaining permission

As the federal regulator, the FAA doesn’t take BVLOS flights lightly. And BVLOS operations using docking stations takes things to an entirely new level. Of course, to grant this waiver, the FAA had to be satisfied the operations would be safe, or at least pose minimal risk. That means the regulator had to have confidence in the drone, the dock – and the scope of operations.

In this case, there are certain limitations contained in the waiver, mostly (or so it appears) to add an extra buffer between the drone’s altitude above ground level and low-flying crewed aircraft. Here’s how the blog explains it:

Under the waiver, BNSF may remotely operate Skydio drones in docks beyond line of sight above rural portions of its network for purposes of infrastructure inspection, patrol, and training. Operations will take place below 100 feet of the ground or obstacles, minimizing the risk of crewed aircraft encounters. The waiver is not geographically limited; it applies to areas above BNSF’s private property located more than 3 nautical miles from airports. BNSF will utilize detect and avoid technology when conducting BVLOS operations.

What does that look like?

Thankfully, Skydio put together some infographics to help explain things.

The age of autonomy

This really is the next stage – and a huge one – in the utility of drones: Automated missions, dispatched and monitored remotely. Perimeter security, carried out on regular schedules. Fire departments, able to dispatch a drone for situational awareness the moment a 9-1-1 call comes in. Military installations, power plants – and much, much more.

Yes, we’ve seen other “drone-in-a-box” solutions, and undoubtedly many of them have potential. But the Skydio system has been purpose-built for Skydio products and also offers a far more compact design than most we’ve seen. This is not just an incremental step forward, but a giant leap.

It’s a significant milestone on the autonomy evolution…

As noted, the Skydio system bring deployed by BNSF is the first to receive approval for these kinds of operations. In our view, the FAA-sanctioned commercial deployment of this system is a very big thing. The waiver, by the way, is valid until June 30, 2023.

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