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Going Beyond. Visual line of sight, that is.

March 20, 2019  - By

Few commercial UAV operations would be able to inspect transmissions lines, pipelines or train tracks without beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) capability, but these key pieces of infrastructure often situate close to or transit across population centers. Further, many population centers have airports and low-level air traffic. Any tools to keep drones away from air traffic during BVLOS operations will significantly inspection companies. We review three promising solutions here.

Pipeline Inspection

Kongsberg Geospatial in Ottawa, Canada has developed location visualization software tools that are used for air-traffic control, command and control, and air defense applications. The company has several decades of experience in these applications. Its IRIS software was used to support recent UAV oil pipeline inspection operations in Nigeria, providing safety critical airspace deconfliction, supervised by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).

IRIS airspace situational awareness screenshot Photo: Kongsberg Geospatial

IRIS airspace situational awareness screenshot (Photo: Kongsberg Geospatial)

The pipeline project was undertaken by Aerial Robotix, a UAS services provider in Nigeria, who used adapted Kongsberg software in its control center to demonstrate safe BVLOS operations, and was then able to obtain the necessary permits. A Schiebel Camcopter S-100 UAV with a 200-kilometer BVLOS capability was used for flight inspection, operating both day and night, with real time high-definition payload imagery sent back to the control station.

Camcopter S-100 prior to BVLOS pipeline inspection flight in Nigeria. Photo: Schiebel

Camcopter S-100 prior to BVLOS pipeline inspection flight in Nigeria. (Photo: Schiebel)

Nigeria has a major problem with gasoline theft from pipelines similar to those lines inspected during this project. Recently, 105 people perished in a blast from a ruptured pipe 30 miles north of the city of Umuahia, possibly during scavenging for leaking fuel. It has been claimed that the pipeline had been ruptured by saboteurs earlier, and for the following six weeks villagers had been collecting fuel. Pipeline vandalism is common in Nigeria, even given the risk of fire or explosion, or the risk of prosecution, or even the possibility of being shot on sight.

Unmanned Companion Fighter Aircraft

Boeing just unveiled a concept UAV which is apparently aimed at providing an airborne team-partner for manned aircraft. The concept was introduced at the Australian International Airshow by the Australian Minister for Defense, the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP. The project is slated for a significant R&D investment by the Australian Government and Boeing Australia.

Boeing Airpower Teaming System. Photo: the Boeing Company

Boeing Airpower Teaming System. (Photo: Boeing Company)

Boeing Airpower Teaming System. Photo: the Boeing Company

Boeing Airpower Teaming System. (Photo: Boeing Company)

The concept model has fighter aircraft lines with a projected 2,000-mile range, autonomous capability, and significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor capability. Flying alongside manned fighter/attack aircraft with artificial intelligence simplifying control, the Airpower Teaming System is designed as a low-cost force multiplier.

The concept includes a pitch for international collaboration offering significant customization so countries can add local content, a key element for any aircraft program designed for off-shore sales.

XQ-58A demonstrator in flight. Photo: US AirForce

XQ-58A demonstrator in flight. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

A day or so after the Airshow (maybe not wanting to be upstaged by Boeing’s announcement?) a release showed up about the first flight of the previously secret XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator. This is apparently a program by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) partnered with Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems to develop a UAS which looks to have very similar capabilities to that of the Boeing concept, perhaps at a significantly further advanced stage, with a much more mil-spec UAV sounding name.

The AFRL indicated that the XQ-58A is part of a Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) (guess that means they don’t much mind losing a few) effort to come up with low-cost force multipliers which can be built quickly using commercial technology and operating from unprepared runways.

(From the Air Force: “The thought is to develop an inexpensive, configurable and producible on demand air vehicle. A number of military applications can be envisioned for an air vehicle with such a capability. One potential application is to use hundreds or thousands of such units in a campaign to overwhelm an enemy’s air defenses and “punch a hole” to enable higher value, less replaceable [aircraft] to engage or monitor enemy systems. Another potential application is to augment the capabilities of high-value intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, systems which may be limited in a specific campaign by distances, quantities, or threats. For all applications, the weapon system is expected to be an air vehicle that would return to base or to a separate location to be recovered. However, because of the mission and because of the low cost, the air vehicle would be attritable, meaning the Air Force would expect and could afford to lose many of the assets.”)

The current program took 2½ years to get to this flying prototype, which still seems pretty lengthy in terms of today’s commercial UAVs. The first flight from Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona lasted an hour and a quarter and all went as expected. Five test flights are planned to check out functionality, aerodynamics, and launch and recovery systems. Kratos is perhaps better known for its family of target drones which have been in use by the US and internationally for some time.

Kratos BQM-177 Navy drone declared operational. Photo: Naval Air Systems Command release

Kratos BQM-177 Navy drone declared operational. (Photo: Naval Air Systems Command)

Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, Inc. announced in early March that its BQM-177A Subsonic Aerial Target (SSAT) has achieved Initial Operational Capability as reported by the US Navy. A Navy statement said “The first site the BQM-177A will be operated from is Pt Mugu, California. The target is capable of speeds in excess of 0.9 Mach and a sea-skimming altitude as low as 10 feet which provides sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missile threat emulation for the US Navy.”

Parachute System for DJI Phantom 4

Recent testing of the descent rate of a Phantom 4 equipped with a SafeAir parachute system indicated that this UAV/parachute combination may well meet the FAA’s recently published draft rules for flight over people. The parachute system uses on-board indicators to trigger parachute deployment. ParaZero (manufacturer of the SafeAir UAV parachute system) has developed standards, and promises to provide customers with certification data to support waiver applications for flight over people.


So now we have intuitive software using terrain data and sensor inputs which can provide a visual overlay to supports BVLOS flights, concepts designs and prototypes to support the ‘Loyal Wingman’ approach – flying UAVs alongside existing defense aircraft as force multipliers – and advances towards UAV flight over people using certified parachute safety systems.  Just a flavor of the flurry of recent new developments in the world of unmanned aircraft.



About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).