NCDOT and Skydio Safe the First True BVLOS Waiver Beneath Half 107 – Drones Information
Today, just months after announcing the statewide waiver of Tactical BVLOS, we celebrate another unique regulatory achievement that enables the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to fly Skydio drones beyond line of sight (BVLOS) for inspection Bridges with unparalleled safety and efficiency. T.
His renunciation marks a new era in unmanned flight. Previously, the FAA had required the use of visual observers (VOs) for operations outside of the visual line of sight (BVLOS). The FAA has also traditionally called for the use of expensive solutions – such as radar – to detect manned aircraft, even in areas where manned aircraft are unlikely to fly. The renunciation announced today breaks both obstacles. NCDOT received permission to conduct BVLOS operations using Skydio’s autonomous drones – without VOs or expensive surveillance technology.
This success follows months of collaboration between Skydio, NCDOT and the FAA. Going forward, NCDOT inspectors, faced with the daunting task of regularly inspecting more than 13,500 bridges, will be able to send drones under bridges rather than dangerous descenders or expensive and invasive Snooper trucks. Although today’s waiver focuses on NCDOT, it signals the FAA’s willingness to allow advanced BVLOS operations within procedural parameters that allow for lower airspace risk near structures, a concept known as infrastructure masking.
This blog explores the partnership between NCDOT and Skydio that made this success possible. explains the nature of the operation; and examine the technology, training and tools that will make this new agency work for your inspection program.
Honoring the leadership of the North Carolina Department of Transportation
First of all, we would like to applaud the FAA for allowing NCDOT’s inspection teams to benefit from these unique and pioneering operations. We would also like to acknowledge the operators who made this possible. In aviation annals, North Carolina will forever be known as the state “First in Flight”. North Carolina has dedicated the same pioneering spirit to advancing the future of unmanned aviation. The North Carolina Integration Pilot Program (IPP) was a catalyst for next-generation drone operations from inspection to delivery. We were thrilled to work with teams across the state, particularly NCDOT.
NCDOT was an early adopter of Skydio 2 and bought it shortly after it launched. NCDOT quickly recognized the value of autonomy for bridge inspection, which my colleague Guillaume Delepine recently described in a must-read blog. The Skydio 2’s obstacle avoidance and visual navigation technologies enable faster and safer inspections by pilots of all skill levels who need to navigate the complex truss structures under bridges. The results are exciting and the benefits of extending the legacy methods that previously dominated the inspection of bridges are many.
To help NCDOT inspect bridges more efficiently than ever, our Regulatory and Policy Director, Brendan Groves, and Director of Solutions Engineering, Kabe Termes, worked closely with NCDOT’s seasoned team on a groundbreaking waiver application to create. We were honored to work with NCDOT to develop the safety case for Below Bridge BVLOS flights, and we were thrilled that the FAA has given our partners a waiver after months of efforts.
Understanding the following BVLOS processes
There are more than 600,000 bridges in America, each of which requires regular inspections for federal and state laws. Few jobs are more important or demanding than the inspection of bridges. To inspect the critical infrastructure beneath the deck of the bridge, highly skilled inspectors perform daring acts – bumping over the edge or dangling down in a snoop’s bucket. It’s dangerous work. Some bridge inspectors were killed and injured. Traditional methods of bridge inspection are extremely expensive and require large crews and expensive equipment. Traditional methods also incur high costs for travelers in the form of long road closures and delays.
Bridge inspectors have long recognized the potential of drones to improve the status quo. However, the use of drones was not without its problems. The first problem was with technology. The vast majority of drones on the market require GPS to operate and are subject to electromagnetic interference (EMI). This effectively prevents operation under a bridge where GPS lockout is unlikely and EMI is likely. To make matters worse, the lackluster obstacle avoidance features on most drones are incapable of navigating complex spaces like bridge trusses. Skydio’s autonomous drones are breaking these barriers. Skydio drones do not require GPS, are not subject to EMI, and are able to navigate in tight spaces without human intervention, allowing even inexperienced pilots to fly in the most demanding of environments.
Skydio drones fly safely where others can’t – even in environments where a GPS lock is unlikely and electromagnetic interference is likely.
The second problem was with FAA regulations. Flying under the deck of a bridge required permission to operate out of line of sight. Traditionally, the FAA has required the use of VOs and expensive surveillance equipment (such as radar) to get a waiver of performing BVLOS operations. Almost every FAA waiver was also limited to specific locations. These requirements were largely incompatible with the type of bridge inspection. When flying under a bridge, VOs are often out of the question – a VO that is on a bridge deck cannot see the drone any better than the pilot. The same goes for radar and other surveillance technologies. Even small radars often cost $ 100,000 or more and need to be tuned to work well in certain locations. After all, exemptions that only apply to a handful of bridges would significantly limit the usefulness of drones. For example, in North Carolina there are more than 13,500 bridges, each of which requires inspection.
For the past six months, Skydio and NCDOT have been working with the FAA to break down these barriers. The waiver announced today enables BVLOS to operate without the three traditional features of previous BVLOS waivers. First, NCDOT can perform BVLOS operations below the deck of bridges without VOs. provided the drone stays within 50 feet of the bridge itself and within 1,500 of the distant pilot. Secondly There is no need to use expensive surveillance technology because the FAA (correctly) recognized that manned aircraft are unlikely to cross the limited airspace in and around a bridge. Third, The waiver is not limited to selected bridges. The waiver takes a performance-based approach that enables NCDOT to perform BVLOS operations on any bridge that meets the criteria set out in the waiver.
Summary of the main features of the waiver
- Allows NCDOT to perform BVLOS operations below the decks of bridges within 50 feet of the bridge itself and to the ground while they are within 1,500 feet of the remote pilot.
- Does not require VOs or ground or airborne surveillance functions as operations take place in an airspace that manned aircraft are unlikely to enter.
- Allows operations within 2 to 3 miles of airports or heliports, provided a NOTAM is obtained. Operations within one mile of airports / heliports are currently not permitted.
- Requests NCDOT to take appropriate measures to ensure that non-participants are not on or under the bridge deck during operation.
Note: This graphic shows the operating construct of the Below Bridge BVLOS operations and the incredible flexibility and range it offers.
Skydio Autonomy helps enable safe and effective BVLOS under the bridge
While this exemption applies to NCDOT, it forms the basis for expanded nationwide infrastructure inspections and destroys barriers that have tied the hands of commercial operators for years. If you’re wondering how this new agency can benefit your operations, we have two simple recommendations.
First, make sure your agency is using drones that will minimize the risk of complex BVLOS operations near structures and ground. Missions in close proximity naturally increase the mission’s risk profile and place a far greater burden on pilots flying a drone in and around structures out of line of sight. The only way to safely and reliably perform these operations is to use a drone that can fly by itself. Autonomy is the answer. You need a drone that will make any pilot a skilled pilot.
As explained above, there is a reason NCDOT trusts Skydio drones to perform these complex inspections. Skydio takes the pressure off its pilots who gain confidence by relying on industry-leading obstacle avoidance features powered by six 4K navigation cameras and a revolutionary set of AI algorithms (check out this blog for more information).
“Drones are a fantastic new tool for our bridge inspection units.” said Secretary of Transportation Eric Boyette. “Safety is a top priority at NCDOT, and this new system is helping to improve the safety not only of our bridges and other infrastructure, but also of our inspectors.”
Second, if you want to apply for a similar waiver, Skydio can provide the technology, training and regulatory expertise you need. Skydio developed the first BVLOS authorization for Below Bridge. We can help your program take advantage of this groundbreaking feature. Skydio is more than a technology provider. We are an experienced partner with the expertise and resources to support your program every step of the way.
In particular, our team of experts can provide:
- Training on BVLOS operation under the bridge: Skydio’s experienced team members can train your team in the basics of BVLOS operations in the immediate vicinity of the infrastructure. Led by Alden Jones, our Senior Director of Customer Success, who previously led a 175-pilot inspection operation with the American Tower Company, our team of former drone program directors can help you take yours to the next level.
- Regulatory support: Skydio can assist you in obtaining approval for your agency to carry out this new class of operations. Let us ease your burden. Our team of experts includes the former heads of the country’s leading drone programs, including the US Department of Justice, the Chula Vista Police Department, and key corporate programs like American Tower.
We look forward to working hand in hand with inspection teams and the FAA to help this class escape. For more information on our breakthrough technologies, check out our previous blogs on Skydio X2, Skydio Autonomy, and our work with roof inspectors. If you’re ready to see the power of autonomy in your own business, or need our help with training or regulatory assistance, contact us today.