I recently had the opportunity to travel to Rome, New York to meet with our customer Southern Company, colleagues at Verizon, and representatives from Hitec at NUAIR’s New York UAS Test Site. The goal: aid Southern Company in testing drone aircraft and procedures at an active airport as a precursor to long-range beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights.
This collaboration was a valuable opportunity: NUAIR’s test site at Griffiss International Airport is one of just seven FAA-designated UAS Test Sites in the United States. A Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA allows NUAIR to conduct BVLOS test operations within the test site, making it a prime location for assessment of long-range drone operations around an active airport.
Corey Hitchcock, Southern Company’s Chief UAS Pilot, hopes to conduct further tests at this location in the future.
“The work we did at NUAIR was an important first step to operating in the BVLOS world,” he said. “Procedures were developed that will lay the foundation of safe BVLOS testing and ultimately lead to BVLOS operations in the greater National Airspace System.”
While the companies were all together, Corey deployed one of Southern Company’s Matrice 600 aircraft to demonstrate a major use case for Southern’s drone program: line pulling. Using the drone, Corey pulled a line over a water obstacle, keeping the line elevated and successfully delivering it to a crew member on the other side.
In the field, Southern uses this process to pull pilot ropes for electrical transmission and distribution lines, resulting in significant gains in time and safety. During power restoration efforts following a hurricane in Puerto Rico, Southern used UAS to pull 72,000 feet of rope for conductor wire, saving weeks or even months of time.
At the airport, core testing was done using Hitec’s fixed-wing Xeno FX aircraft, with Hitec personnel providing hands-on training for everyone present. After a day of orientation with the aircraft, obtaining permissions, and performing brief training flights, we were ready to conduct sample BVLOS operations.
We deployed to the airfield and conducted three flights:
- The first flight travelled approximately one mile round trip, with about one-quarter mile distance between the launch location and the ground control station. This flight successfully tested a modified antenna and proved the aircraft was ready for longer flights.
- The second flight doubled this distance: two miles round trip, with three-quarters of a mile between launch and ground control. Just as in the first flight, the aircraft performed as expected and accurate data was collected.
- The final flight tested the aircraft’s endurance. We flew for 32 minutes, expending just over half the battery capacity and proving the aircraft was well-equipped for long-range BVLOS flights.
We flew without incident and the aircraft performed just as expected. We demonstrated that we could safely deploy and control drones beyond visual line of sight using the equipment available. The procedures executed at NUAIR allowed for the uninterrupted flight of Griffiss’s manned traffic flow, which included military (attack, lift, and rotary-wing), commercial, and civil aircraft. It was an amazing feeling watching our platform share the airspace with so many different and incredible aircraft.
Major enterprises like Southern Company continue to demonstrate the value of drones in the field today, and innovations such as BVLOS flight are in the near future of the UAS industry. As we at Skyward help Southern and other companies continue to conduct tests like these, we are building practices and procedures to prove the safety and reliability of BVLOS operations. And as drones are connected to the wireless network, Verizon and Skyward look forward to helping Southern execute long-range BVLOS flights in urban and remote areas across the U.S.