Flying out of sight of the operator (BVLOS): in the Netherlands it is a headache file, but in the US there are more and more possibilities in this area. The latest development is the introduction of a special BVLOS waiver that allows drone operators to fly under bridges out of sight, for the purpose of inspections. Salient detail: the exemption is only valid in combination with drones from the American manufacturer Skydio.

Cost reduction of 75%

The exemption in question has been granted by the US Aviation Authority FAA to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), say the local equivalent of Rijkswaterstaat. Thanks to the exemption throughout North Carolina, this government agency is allowed to carry out bridge inspections with drones, where the drones are also allowed to fly under bridges without the pilot keeping them in sight.

That is quite a breakthrough, when you consider that the state in question has more than 13,500 bridges, which have to be scrupulously looked at every so often. According to a study conducted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), costs can be reduced by as much as 75%, replacing traditional inspections with drone inspections.

Autonomous drones

Remarkable detail is that the exemption is only valid in combination with drones from American drone builder Skydio. This company is working hard when it comes to autonomous flying drones, which, thanks to advanced 360º obstacle detection and AI, can find their way independently, even if there is no GPS signal available. Especially under bridges, this is of great importance. The inspections are carried out, among other things, using the Skydio 2.

“Drones are a fantastic new tool for our Bridge Inspection Units,” said Eric Boyette, Minister of Transport in North Carolina. “Safety is top priority at the NCDOT, and this new system helps to improve the safety of not only our bridges and other infrastructure, but also of our inspectors.”

Operational preconditions

The BVLOS exemption does set a few operational preconditions. For example, the drone can be a maximum of 50 ft (approx. 15 meters) from the bridge in any direction. Above the bridge, the drone must always be in sight (VLOS). This requirement does not apply under the bridge and therefore BVLOS may be flown.