Today, just a few months after the announcement of the nationwide Tactical BVLOS waiver, we are celebrating another first-of-a-kind regulatory achievement that allows the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to fly Skydio drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to inspect bridges with unparalleled safety and efficiency. T
his waiver marks a new era in unmanned flight. Until now, the FAA had required the use of visual observers (VOs) for operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). The FAA also traditionally required the use of expensive solutions — such as radar — designed to detect manned aircraft, even in areas manned aircraft were unlikely to fly. The waiver announced today breaks both of those barriers. NCDOT received permission to conduct BVLOS operations using Skydio’s autonomous drones — without VOs or expensive surveillance technology.
This achievement follows months of collaboration between Skydio, NCDOT, and the FAA. Going forward, NCDOT’s inspectors — who face the daunting task of inspecting more than 13,500 bridges on a regular basis — can send drones below bridges instead of dangerous rappels or expensive and invasive snooper trucks. Although today’s waiver focuses on NCDOT, it signals the FAA’s willingness to permit advanced BVLOS operations within procedural parameters that account for lower levels of airspace risk near structures, a concept known as infrastructure masking.
This blog explores the partnership between NCDOT and Skydio that made this achievement possible; explains the nature of the operation; and examines the technology, training and tools designed to make this new authority work for your inspection program.
Honoring the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Leadership
We first want to applaud the FAA for enabling NCDOT’s inspection crews to benefit from these unique and forward-leaning operations. We also want to acknowledge the operators who made this possible. In the annals of aviation, North Carolina will forever be known as the state “first in flight.” North Carolina has devoted that same pioneering spirit to advancing the future of unmanned aviation. The North Carolina Integration Pilot Program (IPP) has been a catalyst for next-generation drone operations from inspection to delivery. We have been thrilled to partner with teams across the state, especially NCDOT.
NCDOT was an early adopter of Skydio 2, purchasing it shortly after it hit the market. NCDOT quickly realized the value of autonomy for bridge inspection, which my colleague Guillaume Delepine recently outlined in a must-read blog. Skydio 2’s obstacle avoidance and visual navigation technologies enable faster and safer inspections by pilots of all skill levels that need to navigate the complex truss structures below bridges. The results are exciting, and the benefits to augmenting the outdated methods that previously have dominated bridge inspection are manifold.
To help NCDOT inspect bridges more efficiently than ever before, our Head of Regulatory and Policy Affairs, Brendan Groves, and Director of Solutions Engineering, Kabe Termes, worked closely with NCDOT’s experienced team to craft a ground-breaking waiver application. We were honored to partner with NCDOT in pioneering the safety case for Below Bridge BVLOS flights, and thrilled to see the FAA grant a waiver to our partners after months of effort.
Understanding Below Bridge BVLOS Operations
America boasts more than 600,000 bridges, each one of which must be inspected regularly under federal and state laws. Few jobs are more important — or more demanding — than inspecting bridges. In order to inspect the critical infrastructure below the deck of the bridge, highly trained inspectors conduct daring feats — repelling over the edge or dangling below in the bucket of a snooper truck. It is dangerous work. Some bridge inspectors have been killed and injured. Traditional methods of bridge inspection are profoundly expensive, requiring large crews and costly equipment. Traditional methods also impose high costs on travelers in the form of lengthy road closures and delays.
Bridge inspectors have long understood the potential for drones to improve the status quo. But the use of drones was not without problems. The first problem involved technology. The vast majority of drones on the marketplace require GPS to operate and are subject to electromagnetic interference (EMI) — which effectively prevents operations beneath a bridge, where GPS lock is unlikely and EMI is likely. Making matters worse, the lackluster “obstacle avoidance” features on most drones are incapable of navigating complex spaces like bridge trusses. Skydio’s autonomous drones break through these barriers. Skydio drones do not need GPS, are not subject to EMI, and are fully capable of navigating confined spaces without human intervention — allowing even novice pilots to fly in the most demanding environments.
The second problem involved FAA regulations. Flying below the deck of a bridge required securing permission to operate beyond visual line of sight. Traditionally, the FAA has required the use of VOs and expensive surveillance equipment (such as radar) in order to receive a waiver to conduct BVLOS operations. Almost every FAA waiver was also limited to specific sites. Those requirements were largely incompatible with the nature of bridge inspection. When flying beneath a bridge, VOs are often out of the question — a VO standing on a bridge deck has no more ability to see the drone than the pilot. The same is true for radar and other surveillance technology. Even small radar installations often cost $100,000 or more and must be tuned to work well at specific sites. Finally, waivers that only applied to a handful of bridges would vastly limit the utility of drones. North Carolina, for example, has more than 13,500 bridges — every one of which must be inspected.
Over the last six months, Skydio and NCDOT worked with the FAA to break down these barriers. The waiver announced today permits BVLOS operations without the three traditional features of past BVLOS waivers. First, NCDOT may conduct BVLOS operations below the deck of bridges without VOs, provided the drone remains within 50 feet of the bridge itself and within 1,500 of the remote pilot. Second, there is no requirement to leverage expensive surveillance technology because the FAA (correctly) recognized that manned aircraft are unlikely to transit the confined airspace in and around a bridge. Third, the waiver is not limited to select bridges. The waiver adopts a performance-based approach that allows NCDOT to conduct BVLOS operations at any bridge meeting the criteria outlined in the waiver.
Summary of the key features of the waiver
- Allows NCDOT to conduct BVLOS operations below the decks of bridges, within 50 lateral feet of the bridge itself, and all the way down to the ground, while remaining within 1,500 feet laterally of the remote pilot.
- Does not require VOs or ground- or air-based surveillance capability because the operations take place in airspace where manned aircraft are unlikely to enter.
- Allows for operations within 2–3 miles of airports or helipads provided a NOTAM is obtained; operations within a mile of airports/helipads are not permitted at this time.
- Requires NCDOT to take appropriate measures to ensure that non-participants are not located on or below the bridge deck during the course of operations.
Note: This graphic showcases the operational construct of Below Bridge BVLOS operations and the incredible flexibility and reach it provides.
Skydio Autonomy Helps to Enable Safe and Effective Below Bridge BVLOS
Although this waiver applies to NCDOT, it lays the groundwork for expanded infrastructure inspection operations nationwide, shattering barriers that have tied the hands of commercial operators for years. If you’re wondering how this new authority may benefit your operations, we have two straightforward recommendations.
First, ensure your agency uses drones that minimize the risks of conducting complex BVLOS operations close to structures and the ground. Close proximity missions naturally increase the risk profile of the mission, placing far greater burdens on your pilots, who will be flying a drone in and around structures, beyond visual line of sight. The only way to conduct those operations safely and reliably is to use a drone capable of flying itself. Autonomy is the answer. You need a drone that turns every pilot into an expert pilot.
As discussed above, there is a reason that NCDOT trusts Skydio drones to complete these complex inspections. Skydio takes the pressure off their pilots, who gain confidence by relying on industry leading obstacle avoidance capability powered by six 4K navigation cameras and a revolutionary set of AI algorithms (see this blog for further details).
“Drones are a fantastic new tool for our Bridge Inspection Units,” said Secretary of Transportation Eric Boyette. “Safety is our top priority at NCDOT, and this new system helps improve the safety of not only our bridges and other infrastructure, but of our inspectors as well.”
Second, if you’re interested in applying for a similar waiver, Skydio can provide the technology, training, and regulatory expertise you need. Skydio engineered the first Below Bridge BVLOS authorization, and we can help your program take advantage of this breakthrough capability. Skydio is more than a technology provider; we are an experienced partner with the expertise and resources to help your program every step of the way.
Specifically, our team of experts can provide:
- Training on Below Bridge BVLOS operations: Skydio’s experienced team members can train your team on the fundamentals of BVLOS operations in close proximity to infrastructure. Led by Alden Jones, our Senior Director of Customer Success, who previously led a 175-pilot inspection operation at the American Tower Company, our team of former drone program leaders can help you take yours to the next level.
- Regulatory support: Skydio can assist with the process of receiving approval for your agency to conduct this new class of operations. Let us lighten your load. Our team of experts includes the former heads of the nation’s leading drone programs, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the Chula Vista Police Department, and major enterprise programs like American Tower.
We look forward to working hand-in-hand with inspection teams and the FAA to help this class of operations take flight. To learn more about our breakthrough technologies, please see our previous blogs on the Skydio X2, Skydio Autonomy, and our work with roof inspectors. If you’re ready to realize the power of autonomy in your own operations or want our help with training or regulatory support, contact us today.