Chevron Waiver Unlocks New Era for BVLOS Commercial Drone Operations in US

AATI’s AiRanger drone, pictured here, has received an exemption from the FAA to become the first drone weighing more than 55 pounds to be operated above 400 feet in U.S. airspace. (Image: AATI)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on May 8, 2024 issued a first-of-its kind exemption to Pennsylvania-based drone maker American Aerospace Technologies, Inc. (AATI) for the use of its AiRanger unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations.

While the FAA previously granted a BVLOS waiver to BNSF Railway  for the remote operation of Skydio drones above rural parts of its nationwide network in 2021, the AATI waiver represents a new milestone for commercial UAS operations U.S. airspace. The exemption will allow a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds to be operated above 400 feet under visual flight rules (VFR) without ground or airborne observers. The operation of a large drone in this way marks a milestone moment for the commercial side of the UAS industry, as it will prove the ability of advanced detect and avoidance technology to allow drones to be operated remotely in airspace shared with manned aircraft.

AATI describes the AiRanger  as a 220-pound fixed-wing UAS powered by a fuel-injected gasoline engine that is capable of flying for 12 hours and up to 750 miles at altitudes to 12,000 feet mean sea level (MSL). The specific approvals granted allow operations over a 4,350 square mile area at up to 8,000 feet MSL.

AiRanger's initial application will primarily focus on visual inspection, threat detection and reporting on pipelines and other assets owned by Chevron Pipeline Company (CPL)  — a subsidiary of Chevron Corporation — in a 4,300 square-mile area of San Joaquin Valley. Chevron predicts that it could eventually be used for emergency response to natural disasters for things like spills, leak detection or ecological surveys, according to a May 6, 2024 blog posted by the oil and gas operator.

“For the first time, an uncrewed aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds that flies above 400 feet has been approved for commercial Beyond Visual Line-of Sight operations in the United States, opening a new era in uncrewed aviation in the National Airspace System (NAS). The uncrewed AiRanger eliminates the risk to flight crews on traditional patrol aircraft while producing 35 times less CO2. It is also capable of patrolling at 30 times the rate of BVLOS sUAS operating under 400 feet," David Yoel, Founder and CEO of AATI, said in a statement.

The FAA issued a "91.113 Waiver and granted a 44807 Exemption Waiver and Exemption" to AATI after observing the AiRanger's detect and avoid (DAA) onboard avionics system during flight operations in Buttonwillow, California in October 2023. Under the waiver, AATI can leverage the detect and avoid system to comply with NAS aircraft "right of way rules" while conducting BVLOS operations, according to CPL.

Additional equipment and technology details about how the AiRanger's onboard avionics systems and connectivity help enable safe BVLOS operations were also released by some of the companies that AATI worked with to equip the drone as well. Echodyne, the Kirkland, Washington-based radar supplier, notes that the AiRanger features one of its EchoFlight Metamaterials Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radars on a pod of each wing of the UAS.

Andrew Giordano, pilot in command for AATI, monitors an AiRanger flight. (Image: AATI)

This provides the necessary visibility for the AiRanger to meet minimum operational performance standards (MOPS). The detection and tracking ranges provided by EchoFlight provide the DAA system with sufficient time and information to take avoidance measures and maintain operational safety, according to Echodyne.

"Echodyne’s EchoFlight radar provides unparalleled data fidelity and precision, and this first-of-its-kind waiver is evidence of radar's role in providing the situational awareness necessary for successful detect-and-avoid systems," Yoel said.

AiRanger is also equipped with Iridium partner Blue Sky Network's dual-mode SkyLink 7100 voice, data, and BVLOS terminal. The terminal connects AiRanger to iridium's L-Band satellite network to enable continuous tracking and command and control capabilities while conducting BVLOS inspections of Chevron's facilities and pipelines.

"This certification shows innovation through the fusion of technology, partnership, and practical application," said John Peterson, Executive Director of Aviation, Iridium. "When aircraft manufacturers and communications providers get together, scalable business solutions can become a reality. Iridium and our partners AATI and Blue Sky Network are proud to lay the groundwork for scalable BVLOS operations and show what's possible with reliable satellite communications."

The AiRanger is also equipped with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), and most of its flights are preplanned and operated, while also remotely monitored by humans. Chevron notes that AiRanger uses machine learning to discover patterns in the data it collects, runs those patterns through modeling and uses the insights to help the UAS get better at decision making while operating.

Chevron expects the use of AiRanger to give its San Joaquin Valley operation the ability to cover more ground with increased accuracy over longer periods of time. The company notes that the type of aerial monitoring AiRanger will be performing is typically handled by an aircraft piloted by one person while the other looks out the window to determine if there are any hazards or threats that need to be addressed.

“A UAS can give us an accurate, documented view of our pipeline,” said Roy Martinez, Project Manager for the UAS initiative and Digital Advisor for Operations in Chevron’s Pipeline and Power division. “It allows us to gather data on hazard identification along the path of the pipeline and provide the FAA and industry with more information on what it’s like to employ this technology.”