Explained: 'Beyond Visual Line Of Sight' Drone Operations

by Swarajya Staff - Aug 31, 2021 10:55 AM +05:30 IST
Explained: 'Beyond Visual Line Of Sight' Drone OperationsRepresentative image of a drone
  • BVLOS or “beyond visual line of sight” drone operations have not been eased up by the new drone rules.

    BVLOS will enable commercial activity with drones and will lead to a rise in drone use in the country.

    Here's a look at how BVLOS is coming along in India.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation has replaced the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rules 2021, which were notified in March this year, with the new Drone Rules 2021.

The Ministry notified the drone rules on 26 August, after feedback from academia, startups, and other stakeholders supposedly indicated the earlier drone rules to be "restrictive in nature".

The liberalised rules, however, do not open up BVLOS or “beyond visual line of sight” drone operations.

It is believed that allowing BVLOS operations would lead to a significant rise in the use of drones in the country.

Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has said, however, that the government is working to give approval to BVLOS operations for drones.

BVLOS operations allow for piloting a drone remotely without having to be manoeuvred by keeping the drone in sight.

It is a crucial use case for the industry from a commercialisation perspective. They enable commercial activities such as deliveries (especially medicine and healthcare-related services), pipeline inspection, and remote surveillance, among other things.

Drone regulations in India as enacted in December 2018 did not allow for BVLOS operations. In January 2019, a white paper on drone policy 2.0 was presented by then minister for civil aviation Jayant Sinha, paving the way for a wider application of drones, such as the delivery of goods beyond visual line of sight.

This was hailed as a major turning point for the drone market in India. Yet, it is still not clear as to when we will see the sky buzzing with drones.

Since most BVLOS operations are targeted towards use in urban areas, especially delivery of essential goods, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has been working on an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) policy in an effort to standardise UTMs used by BVLOS drones.

UTM is essentially an air traffic management system (similar to airplanes) for drones, except that it is an automated tool, so that they can communicate while in flight.

It can detect the real-time location of a drone and has anti-collision warning systems so that drones flying in the same airspace can communicate with each other.

Before BVLOS operations begin formally, a UTM policy will have to be formulated. A framework for the UTM system will be published on Digital Sky within 60 days of notifying the rules.

BVLOS-enabled drones have to address challenges similar to that of an aircraft. They need to be updated about weather changes, geographic and demographic data of the area over which they’re flying, and sudden changes to flying zone status, among other things, in order to be aware of weather conditions and to prevent collisions with other drones or aircraft in the same airspace.

These drones need to be connected to the internet at all times to ensure that UTMs work accurately. The connection to the internet can happen in three different ways — on a 4G network or on an unlicensed 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz frequency bands.

Though delivery drones may presently appear to be a distant use case, considering all operations must have a remote pilot operator for each Remotely Piloted Aircraft and be within visual line of sight (VLOS), there is a distinct possibility that the sector would expand with time to accommodate fully autonomous, self-controlling drones that operate without the presence of any manual operator and beyond VLOS.

The safety of drone operations has also merited significant attention, including insistence on geo-fencing technological capabilities beyond a certain height and for most weight categories, and the requirement of drone operator insurance to compensate for any losses incurred because of commercial operations.

In May 2019, DGCA invited companies to participate in sandboxes for BVLOS and test their drones. The government allowed several drone and e-commerce companies to carry out BVLOS projects in designated airspaces across the country, essentially green-lighting them to test the delivery of goods using drones, among other things, under a regulatory sandbox.

The aim is to create evidence-based regulatory requirements to enable commercial BVLOS operations in the near future. In an effort to formulate regulations around commercial BVLOS drone operations, the DGCA is looking at these projects to gain insights into BVLOS operations.

As part of this project, the DGCA received proposals from 34 consortia. Thirteen consortia, including Reliance-backed Asteria Aerospace, Nandan Nilekani-backed ShopXOmnipresent, Spicejet, and Google-backed Dunzo, were permitted by the DGCA to carry out BVLOS drone projects in designated airspaces across the country.

The other consortia that received the DGCA’s permission include Saubika Consortium, ANRA Consortia A and B, Dhaksha Unmanned Systems, and ClearSky Flight Consortium.

Every consortia permitted is essentially a group of drone companies and additional service providers, such as drone manufacturers (UAS), drone traffic management system developers (UTM), data collection and analysis companies, safety management experts, and supplementary service providers.

Some consortia such as ShopXOmnipresent and ANRA plan to test delivery using drones, while some such as Saubika are looking to test surveillance for military purposes, disasters, inspections, and payload deliveries.

Spicejet, meanwhile, is looking to test transport of cargo goods, and Asteria will experiment surveying long pipelines at crude oil refineries.

In May this year, the Government of Telangana received a conditional exemption for conducting experimental BVLOS drone flights for delivery of vaccines.

More recently, National Health Mission, Mumbai, received a conditional exemption for conducting experimental BVLOS drone flights to deliver essential healthcare items in tribal areas of Jawhar in Palghar district of Maharashtra.

On 20 August, a BVLOS trial for drone delivery of medicines was successfully completed in Bengaluru. It was led by Throttle Aerospace Systems in association with the Bengaluru-based e-commerce platform Udaan and under the supervision of the DGCA.

"BVLOS trials will help create (a) framework for future drone deliveries and other major applications using drones," a statement by the Ministry of Civil Aviation has said.

Once the BVLOS projects are completed and the DGCA has enough to clarify the safety, security, and viability of such operations, it can possibly exempt them from the restrictive clauses.

The DGCA can additionally look at the steps taken by regulators in the United States of America (US) and the European Union (EU) on how to move ahead with BVLOS operations in a safe, efficient, and acceptable manner.

The regulatory framework for BVLOS drone operations in the US and EU provide valuable lessons on operational risk assessments, security considerations, and mitigation measures that can be adopted to transition to a drone-friendly regulatory environment.

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