PITTSBURG — A Kansas drone research and development team will soon use an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to “fly a nine-mile track to evaluate technologies to inspect power lines in rural Kansas” in a first-of-its-kind drone flight, according to a recent Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) news release.

The 31-member team is a collaborative effort from the Kansas UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) bringing together personnel from KDOT, Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus (K-State Polytechnic), Westar Energy, and Iris Automation.

According to the KDOT release, the department has “received permission to conduct the first ever Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone operation in the nation leveraging only onboard detect-and-avoid systems.” The release, which also notes that the operation “is the first-ever FAA authorized operation to fly without a requirement for visual observers or ground-based radar,” was headlined “Kansas approved for first Beyond Visual Line of Sight drone flight in the nation.”

Troy Graham, owner of local UAS aerial photography and videography company AV8 Droneworx, pointed out, however, that the new Kansas operation is not the first to receive a partial waiver for Federal Aviation Administration regulations known as Part 107, and specifically from part 107.31, which covers “Visual Line of Sight Aircraft Operation.” Waivers for this regulation have in fact been issued going back to 2016.

That is not to say that the IPP team is not breaking new ground in drone testing.

“This is the first UAV flight in history to leverage onboard sense-and-avoid systems alone for collision avoidance,” the KDOT release notes.

“It also marks the first required automated avoidance action. Historically, all FAA-issued Part 107 BVLOS waivers have required visual observers or ground-based radar. These mitigations limit the possibility of true BVLOS flights, as they are typically prohibitively expensive and limit operations to pre-defined corridor areas with radar coverage,” according to the release. “This important milestone is facilitated by Kansas UAS IPP partner Iris Automation’s Casia onboard collision avoidance system.”

Some of those involved in the collaborative effort behind the new drone flight also discussed aspects of the operation that have not been done before.

“The ability to fly BVLOS missions without ground-based radar or visual observers is a significant advancement, and Westar Energy views this as an opportunity to play a key role in shaping the future of UAS operations within the utility industry,” said Mike Kelly, Westar Energy Senior UAS Coordinator, according to KDOT’s press release. “Being able to operate under this waiver allows the Kansas IPP team the ability to research and develop truly scalable BVLOS UAS operations for the automated inspection of linear infrastructure.”

Iris Automation CEO and Co-Founder Alexander Harmsen made similar comments in the release.

“Flying rural missions like these without a human pilot onboard or costly radar on the ground is exponentially safer and more cost effective,” Harmsen said. “The FAA is trusting us to pave the way for a safer, scalable future together with this precedent-setting second approval of our system.”

Graham similarly said that the recent FAA authorization for KDOT and the IPP team to conduct the new type of drone flight is a notable development.

“It’ll be one of the things that opens up more doors as far as applications” for flying drones, Graham said. As beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights become more widely authorized and more common, “basically the only limiting factors are going to be drone battery life and the actual signal of the remote control that operates the drone,” he added.

Graham said that living in a rural area of Crawford County, he sometimes sees small Cessna type airplanes or helicopters flying low over wooded areas, presumably to check for trees growing too close to power lines or other issues with the lines that might be visible from the air. Doing these types of inspections using drones rather than manned aircraft might be more efficient, he said.

K-State Polytechnic Campus’s Applied Aviation Research Center “will be responsible for the training and flight operations with a cross-functional team from the KDOT IPP,” according to the release. Flights will take place in the coming months, “providing the FAA with much-needed data on true BVLOS activity.”

Kurt Carraway, UAS executive director of the K-State Polytechnic Applied Aviation Research Center, also discussed new drone capabilities that the IPP team is working to enable.

“We look forward to leveraging this waiver to integrate UAS technology into the transmission line inspection process,” Carraway said in the release. “We are certain that utilities will be able to quickly realize a return on investment while mitigating safety to their maintenance personnel and increasing the reliability of their infrastructure to the general public.”

KDOT Director of Aviation Bob Brock also commented on the significance of the FAA authorization and the work that has gone into making the new project possible.

“The UAS industry has worked over 10 years to demonstrate the most significant commercial benefit of drone operations within the United States,” Brock said in the release. “We are proud of the joint state, university and industry team effort that made this landmark decision possible.”