Within a short period of time, many countries across the world have introduced regulations pertaining to operations of drones. Almost all of them allow for VLoS (Visual Line-of-Sight) operations of drones. This requires the drone pilot to keep the drone within their unaided visual line of sight. This implies the maximum range to which a drone can fly is just about 500m away from the operator. A lot of operations can be conducted within the bounds of VLoS flight, for example, construction monitoring, mine surveying, bridge inspection, tower inspection and agricultural spraying to name a few. Even then, some of the most promising applications of drones require the drone to travel long distances much beyond the line of sight of the drone pilot. This includes applications such as payload delivery of medical supplies to remote areas, inspection and surveying of railway tracks, highways and pipelines, providing situational awareness to security forces, conducting meteorological analysis etc.
Even though militaries have been using armed drones for surveillance and offence, BVLoS flight is a new frontier in the global civil aviation industry. A BVLoS flight essentially requires a trust in the technical ability of the drone to conduct the autonomous flight. Earlier this ability was limited only to the highly-priced military drones but recent strides in the development of on-board hardware and software have brought this ability in the reach of civilian drone operators. In fact, an autonomous flight is closer to being the norm after the widespread adoption of open-source hardware and software platforms such as Pixhawk, Ardupilot and Mission Planner.
Governments across the world have taken cognizance of this development but the rapid development of this technology has presented them with a dilemma. A drone in BVLoS flight is essentially a robot flying on its own in what can possibly be very crowded airspace. Therefore, most of the governments have taken a conservative approach to this high-risk operation. The governments are allowing the operators to conduct experiments in de-risked environments and submit the results to the government. The results of these experiments are intended to help the governments in the framing of standards and regulations. Examples of this include trials in the US, UK, Europe and India.
In India, DGCA has invited industry to submit Expression of Interest (EoI) for conducting experiments involving BVLoS flights. The interested entities are required to form a Consortium. The Consortium should have expertise in various aspects of BVLoS flights namely, flight operation, UTM, data analysis and safety case development. DGCA intends to provide the Consortium with segregated low-risk airspace to conduct the experiment. The Consortium is required to complete at least 100 hours of test flight before submitted a Proof of Concept to DGCA. The deadline for submission of EoI is 10 July, 2019.
With the announcement of the EoI, India has leapfrogged to become one of the few countries in the world to allow experimental BVLoS flights and is now at the forefront of developing a regulatory and technical framework which should enable large-scale commercial and humanitarian BVLoS flights.