Do Commercial Drones Need an Operator Nearby to Make Deliveries?

Do Commercial Drones Need an Operator Nearby to Make Deliveries?

At the moment, low-altitude commercial drones must maintain a “line-of-sight” connectivity at all points during their flight.

Delivering life-saving supplies from low altitudes during a major humanitarian crisis, helping police track criminals on the run, and even dropping off pizza from just a few miles away in an urban environment are all things drones will do in the very near future.

Much of the technology for these key civilian tasks, enabled by advanced computer algorithms, automation, and radio-frequency transmission, is here today to a certain degree. However, airspace for lower altitude drones must be “deconflicted” to ensure safety and new computer technology needs to enable “Beyond Visual Line of Sight” operation for commercial drones.  

Given the pace of the market’s current expansion of smaller unmanned systems capable of performing a wide range of tasks, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working intensely with commercial and defense companies like Raytheon Intelligence & Space (RI&S) to promote secure and deconflicted beyond visual line-of-sight drone flight.    

“Unmanned traffic management capability deals with the future. This is a new megatrend for electrically powered vehicles, whether they're small drones, that are delivering packages from Amazon or UPS, or large passenger carrying, or cargo carrying aircraft that are  electrically powered. They're all going to be flying relatively low level, from the surface to maybe 400 feet for the small package delivery drones. It will likely be surface to five or 10,000 feet for passenger carrying drones,” Kip Spurio, technical director of Air Traffic Systems at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, told The National Interest in an interview.  

The ability to navigate and fly beyond visual line of sight is what Spurio referred to as the “holy grail” of future civilian small drone flight. At the moment, Spurio explained, low-altitude commercial drones must maintain a “line-of-sight” connectivity at all points during their flight path, meaning operators would need to either travel close to the drone or position others to pick up and track an extended flight. 

“We're working with a couple of delivery operators, working towards dealing with the FAA and gaining beyond visual line of sight approval. That is the holy grail for this whole economic structure to work,” Spurio said.  

Using cutting-edge Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar technology, cloud computing, and advanced automation, RI&S has engineered a new end-to-end system designed to enable deconflicted, secure, and beyond visual line-of-sight low-altitude drone flight. Technically, the effort involves integrating aviation-grade automation platforms and detect and avoid capabilities to allow for high-volumes of low-altitude surveillance and cloud-enabled computer data storage and analysis able to merge, organize, analyze, and distribute critical details for drone operators. 

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.