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The next frontier for drones: Letting them fly out of sight

AP – For years, there’s been a cardinal rule for flying civilian drones: Keep them within your line of sight. Not just because it’s a good idea – it’s also the law.

But some drones have recently gotten permission to soar out of their pilots’ sight. They can now inspect high-voltage power lines across the forested Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia.

They’re tracking endangered sea turtles off Florida’s coast and monitoring seaports in the Netherlands and railroads from New Jersey to the rural West.

Aviation authorities in the United States (US) are preparing to relax some of the safeguards they imposed to regulate a boom in off-the-shelf consumer drones over the past decade.

Businesses want simpler rules that could open your neighbourhood’s skies to new commercial applications of these low-flying machines, although privacy advocates and some airplane and balloon pilots remain wary.

For now, a small but growing group of power companies, railways and delivery services like Amazon are leading the way with special permission to fly drones “beyond visual line of sight”. As of early July, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had approved 230 such waivers – one of them to Virginia-based Dominion Energy for inspecting its network of power plants and transmission lines.

A drone flies at an FAA designated drone testing site. PHOTO: AP

“This is the first step of what everybody’s expecting with drones,” said Dominion’s Chief Security Officer Adam Lee. “The first time in our nation’s history where we’ve now moved out into what everyone’s expecting is coming.”

That expectation – of small drones with little human oversight delivering packages, assessing home insurance claims or buzzing around on nighttime security patrols – has driven the FAA’s work this year to craft new safety guidelines meant to further integrate drones into the national airspace.

The FAA said it is still reviewing how it will roll out routine operations enabling some drones to fly beyond visual line of sight, although it has signalled that the permissions will be reserved for commercial applications, not hobbyists.

“Our ultimate goal is you shouldn’t need a waiver for this process at all. It becomes an accepted practice,” said CEO of California drone-maker Skydio Adam Bry, which is supplying its drones to Dominion, railroad company BNSF and other customers with permission to fly beyond line of sight.

“The more autonomous the drones become, the more they can just be instantly available anywhere they could be useful,” Bry said.

Part of that involves deciding how much to trust that drones won’t crash into people or other aircraft when their operators aren’t looking. Other new rules will require drones to carry remote identification – like an electronic license plate – to track their whereabouts. And in the aftermath of Russia’s war in Ukraine – where both sides have used small consumer drones to target attacks – the White House has been pushing a parallel effort to counter the potential malicious use of drones in the US.

At a gas-fired plant in Remington, Virginia, which helps power some of Washington’s suburbs, a reporter with AP watched in June as Dominion Energy drone pilots briefly lost visual line of sight of their inspection drone as it flew around the backside of a large fuel tank and the top of a smoke stack.

That wouldn’t have been legally possible without Dominion’s recently approved FAA waiver.

And it wouldn’t have been technically possible without advancements in collision-avoidance technology that are enabling drones to fly closer to buildings.

Previously, “you would have to erect scaffolding or have people go in with a bucket truck”, said Nate Robie, who directs the drone programme at Dominion. “Now you can go in on a 20-minute flight.”