Beyond Visual Line Of Site (BVLOS): There is More to Know

BVLOS has been touted as the “holy grail” of the UAV / drone industry. Those that possess it feel they are thus a cut above the rest. With over 99% of BVLOS waiver applications rejected by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (only 16% of the 11,345 applications reviewed in 2018 had been approved) and as of June 2020, just 56 waivers have ever been issued, not to mention the ongoing changes, it’s easy to see why.

Kevin Morris, an FAA inspector, and their drone expert, stated that “Beyond visual line of sight is not impossible to get, but it is a very complex, high-risk UAS operation, which will require a comprehensive, detailed risk-mitigation strategy and risk-analysis program that you have in your application.”

Successful applicants, he said, tend to include equipment specifications, failure rates, maintenance plans, redundancies, and fail-safes. “What are you going to do when this stuff doesn’t work? As important as how are you going to use this stuff when it is working. This is where Pandora’s box opens. The lucky few who do pass are given a waiver usually with only the narrowest of the mission profiles.”

If you plan to fly BVLOS without a Visual Observer (VO), your team will need to also apply for waivers CFR Part 107.31 regulations, visual line of sight aircraft operation but also CFR 107.33(b) “The remote pilot in command must ensure that the visual observer can see the unmanned aircraft in the manner specified in 107.31” and (c)(2) “Maintain awareness of the position of the small unmanned aircraft through direct visual observation.”

A Part 107.31 waiver alone does not eliminate the requirement for a VO.

To obtain the 107.31 waiver, operators must prove to the FAA that their drone operations can be conducted safely without endangering other aircraft (midair collisions), birds, ultralights, hang gliders, balloons, skydivers, RC model aircraft, etc. in the air; injury to people and damage to property, vehicles, and structures on the ground; all without direct line-of-sight with the aircraft.

Thus, the higher the safety and the lower the risk proven, the better the odds are for approval. Moreover, as you will no doubt learn, the FAA requires significant documentation. If you can provide it all in a format the inspectors are used to, the better your chances of scoring additional points (and we need all the help we can get).

Successful applications seen look more like a commercial flight operation manual than a few pages of highlights.

Most importantly, applicants need to keep in mind that the waiving of that part of the rule (107.31) does not exempt them from any other Part 107 rules or from any of the responsibility for safe operation that led to that requirement’s creation. Anyone who wants their application approved needs to show the FAA, in detail, that those risks are understood and accounted for.

Before we dive into BVLOS, there are two items you must realize:

  • as a certificated Part 107 drone pilot, the FAA will treat you just like any other manned aircraft pilot that takes to the sky and;
  • you are flying an FAA-registered aircraft subject to their established rules and regulations.

As the pilot in command (PIC), the authority and responsibility for the entire flight lies solely with you.

Let’s take a look at a few of the misconceptions that surround BVLOS. Later I will share some thoughts on supporting documentation necessary to provide cover should you be ramp checked by the FAA.

Does the BVLOS waiver mean you can fly without ever seeing your aircraft?

No. BVLOS approved waivers all include the need for visual observers (VOs) sufficient in number and located to continuously observe the aircraft’s LAASDON (location, altitude, attitude, speed, the direction of flight, obstacle clearance, not creating a hazard to other aircraft, persons or property on the ground).

As a side note, as of this article’s date, the FAA has confirmed that 90% of COA agencies (PAOs) need a VO for BVLOS operations and most for Tactical BVLOS emergency waivers.

Also, reliable communications must be established so vital information can be reported without delay. Participants must be part of a preflight safety briefing that covers designated positions, physical locations, responsibilities, Crew Resource Management (CRM), planned flight operating area, designated launch and recovery areas, verification of geofence boundaries, return home, land flight profile, course, emergency landing site(s), land profile, and course, procedures for avoidance of other aircraft, and operating under this waiver. They should also wear Hi-Viz apparel or safety vests for easy identification.

Emergency procedures should be established to terminate the flight anytime the safety of human beings or property on the ground or in the air is in jeopardy, the UAV control link is lost, a non-participating aircraft enters the designated flight operating area, GPS signal is lost, or drone GPS location information is degraded or lost.

My drone has obstacle avoidance built-in, so I don’t need a VO, right?

Wrong. Although helpful, for obstacle avoidance to be legally useable, it must be certified (usually by the manufacturer) to the FAA’s satisfaction, and that comes from years of documented testing.

Does BVLOS allow you to fly legally in all other situations?

No. Other Part 107 requirements (like flying over people, at night, from a moving vehicle, etc.) must be adhered to as well. BVLOS is thus not a master of all waivers. Of note, most approved waivers are valid in Class G, uncontrolled airspace only.

In the manned aircraft world, we deal with annual inspections, POH (pilot operating handbook), STCs (supplemental type certificates), ADs (airworthiness directives), not to mention all the training, type ratings, certifications, and flight currencies needed to maintain safe flight competencies. Thus, I believe you would be well served by not thinking of 107.31 as obtaining another waiver but more as a function added to your flight operations handbook (FOH). The BVLOS waiver will demand no less.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas for building your FOH to become and remain compliant:

  • A Safety Management System (SMS) consistent with the BVLOS waiver sought (see FAA advisory circular 120- 92B for guidance.) More on this in an upcoming article.
  • A current roster of pilots names, certification numbers and related contact information.
  • A current list of UAVs and registration numbers.
  • A list of participants, PIC, PMC (person manipulating the controls) and VOs participating in the related flight.
  • Monthly reporting sent to the FAA.
  • Method of manual distribution and revision.
  • Copy of the current waiver(s).
  • Method to ensure safety of non-participating persons and aircraft.
  • Direct participant minimum requirements and safety briefing checklist.
  • Method of communications.
  • Crew Resource Management.
  • Risk management.
  • Revisions and Accident Notification. The operations manual must contain procedures for notification and reporting of accidents in accordance with 14 CFR § 107.9 and NTSB 830.
  • Insurance documentation.
  • State registration and compliances (if required).
  • Don’t forget the aircraft.
    • Preflight checklist.
    • Normal, abnormal and emergency operating procedures, o description and limitations by model.
    • Software and programming ready for flight.
    • flight training and recurrency.
    • Repairs, maintenance and test flight logbook(s).

This article was not designed to be all-encompassing. Hopefully, it will help interested pilots and operations increase the odds of obtaining, implementing, and maintaining long-term compliance with the BVLOS part 107.31 waiver itself.

If you have questions, please feel free to contact me:

Robert Zarracina
Flight Ventures Ltd