Chasing The UAS Beyond-Line-Of-Sight Dream

Aerial Services Inc. has permission from the FAA to conduct commercial operations with UAS, but company CEO Mike Tully says the technology won't reach its true potential until beyond line-of-sight operations are possible.
By Patrick C. Miller | June 04, 2015

There’s a joke about a guy who drove the same route every day on his way to work. And every day, the same dog would run into the street to chase his car down the block. One day, he stopped the car, lowered the window and said to the perplexed dog, “Now that you’ve caught it, what are you going to do with it?”

Mike Tully, CEO of Aerial Services Inc. in Cedar Falls, Iowa, is a bit like the dog who finally caught the car. Last fall, I spoke to him for a story about the free e-book he’d authored on how the coming revolution in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) was going to impact businesses such as his, which had been using manned aircraft nearly 50 years to gather geographic information for mapping, surveying and other purposes.

Recently, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration granted ASI a Section 333 commercial exemption to use the senseFly eBee and the senseFly eBee Ag small UAS in its operations. But as Tully describes it, the experience is something like getting the keys to the car you’ve always wanted, but being told you can only drive it five miles per hour during the day in an unoccupied parking lot as long as someone else is watching.

“Overall, my feelings are that the main limitation of this exemption is that it’s restricted to visual line of sight only,” he explained. “We can only fly it where we can see it with the naked eye. That’s way too restrictive and I think it’s unnecessary given the technology we have today.”

His concerns echo much of what I heard during panel discussions at AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta last month. Everybody agreed that UAS offer enormous potential for mapping, surveying, 3D modeling and inspecting critical infrastructure. The sticking point, however, is beyond line-of-sight operations which, for the most part, are prohibited by the FAA.

Late last year, Tully wrote a blog on ASI’s website about his ideas on safely integrating UAS into the national airspace. He believes that the same technology used for cellular phone communications can provide a solution for the safe operation of drones—commercial and recreational alike.

Tully’s idea is for every UAV manufactured to include a chip that uploads its flight plan into a national database for all aircraft flight plans. The flight plans would also be downloaded to the chip in the UAV.

“Before anybody can fly a drone, that drone has to have informed that database of where it’s going to fly and know where all other drones are going to be flying. Then every drone has an automatic restricted airspace around it,” he explained.

“Manned aircraft—the helicopters, the emergency flights, the crop dusters—they also wll be able to know of all of these drone flight areas by attaching to the same database,” Tully said. “Everybody could retain separation from each other. One drone would never enter the space of another drone.”

With this approach, anyone who attempted to fly a drone in the prohibited airspace surrounding the White House and other areas in Washington, D.C., would never be able to leave the ground. But until the sense-and-avoid technology is sorted out, Tully and others who have received commercial exemptions will have to find uses for UAS within the limitations the FAA has given them.

“They’re a nice tool, but the specific applications that have a good return on investment, we don’t know what those are yet,” he noted.